Godzilla will always be king, but every reign has its bad days. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is one of those. As the second entry in Legendary’s Godzilla franchise, and the third American hack at the titanic beast overall, it’s becoming clearer that Westerners may never produce a Godzilla film as strong as some of the original Japanese classics. 2019’s King of the Monsters serves up some solid match-ups between some truly awe-inspiring massive predators, but a hollow script and a rushed attempt at world-building renders the latest American Godzilla another disappointment.
In 1954, history was made when Toho Pictures released the first-ever Godzilla film in Japan. The movie featured a giant fire-breathing prehistoric lizard leveling the city of Tokyo and other populated areas after the monster was awakened from its undersea habitat by hydrogen bomb testing. It was only 9 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with the wounds still fresh on the Japanese consciousness, the creature was conceived as a tool for anti-war commentary, and the film was successful enough to launch a sprawling, decades-long franchise.
Godzilla films had been reworked and distributed in the west since the series’ inception, but it wasn’t until 1998 that Americans produced a Godzilla adaptation of their very own. Directed by prolific disaster-flick artist Roland Emmerich, the first American Godzilla was a box office success, but was reviled by fans as an unfaithful depiction of the beloved lizard. It wouldn’t be for 16 years that Hollywood would try again, next with 2014’s Godzilla, this time to a much warmer welcome by series enthusiasts, as the film was an impressive, if imperfect, blockbuster.
Now we’re back five years later with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Whereas Emmerich attempted to go a different direction with his Godzilla, Legendary Pictures is endeavoring to mimic the layout of Toho’s massive kaiju franchise whose heyday lasted between the 50’s and 70’s. This includes adapting the character of King Kong, who was introduced in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, makes a cameo here, and is intended to star again in Godzilla vs. Kong next year. While that could be a showdown for the ages, we could ask for a stronger bridge than 2019’s King of the Monsters.
When we last saw Godzilla in 2014, he had just retired back into the sea after saving earth from the arachnid-like MUTO’s (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms). During this film, we learned of project Monarch, a crypto-zoological organization that has been secretly tracking titans, or massive creatures, for decades. In King of the Monsters, we are introduced to the Russel family: divorced husband and wife and Monarch scientists Dr. Mark (Kyle Chandler), Dr. Emma (Vera Farmiga), and their 12-year-old daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown).
During the titan rampage of San Francisco, the Russels lost their son Andrew. Emma and Mark split up, and Mark left Monarch. Later while doing work for the organization, Emma and Madison get kidnapped by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who plans to unleash titans all over the world in order to enact a planetary “balancing of the scales.” This leads Monarch to seek Mark out again for help. As Jonah’s group brings this deadly vision to fruition, Monarch, with the help of Mark, attempts to locate Godzilla to lead him into fighting for our defense.
A common complaint with 2014’s Godzilla was that there was too much emphasis on the human characters, and too little on the giant lizard. This was understandable, as if you were to tally up ‘Zilla’s actual time on-screen, it wouldn’t amount to a lot. On the other hand, the film actually offered some mildly respectable human drama. In King of the Monsters, there is much more of the beast on display, but you can’t have a film without human-like characters, and the movie is a disaster in this department. And as far as the action component, this could be better as well.
The conflict between the Russels bears potential for some workable family tension, and they’re portrayed by some fine actors that or more than up to the task, but they mainly serve as tools to advance the cartoonish mythology surrounding project Monarch. Too little time is spent developing each of them to support the emotional arc of the plot, as is evident when Vera Farmiga’s character takes a radical turn without leaving much of an impact. And since this comes at the expense of ordinary people in actual danger, there’s not really anyone to relate to here.
But that’s not really why we’re here, anyway, right? We’re here to see huge monsters brawl and smash stuff! You’ll certainly get some bang for your buck in this regard, but the execution is quite frustrating, as these scenes could be much more cohesive than what we get. Classic Toho kaijus Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah show up in truly epic fashion, but the direction by Michael Dougherty (Trik ‘r Treat, Krampus), who has limited experience with such big-budget fare, is consistently choppy, resulting in underwhelming combat, and too-few of glory shots.
If you’re a seasoned Godzilla fan, though, you’re no stranger to bombastic monster movies, as the lizard’s filmography is rife with content like this, and you’ve definitely seen worse before the days of jaw-dropping CGI. From that perspective, franchise fans will likely still find the latest Godzilla worth their time, as the obvious reverence for Toho here is at a scale that has never before been exhibited in a Hollywood production. However, we definitely could have asked for more from Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Let’s hope Godzilla vs. Kong makes it up to us next year.