Disclaimer: this review discusses plot points – please watch the film first to avoid spoilers.
Godzilla King of the Monsters is a disappointing sequel to 2014’s Godzilla. A weak script, plagued with misplaced humour, gives way to flat characters whose motivations are sometimes incoherent. Whilst individual moments and characters shine, the sum of the film’s parts falls short of the effectiveness of Gareth Edwards’ film.
In the five years following Godzilla’s battle with the MUTOs, Monarch (the organisation that tracks, studies, and contains such monsters) has come under military scrutiny. Around the world, many believe the monsters should simply be destroyed, such as Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), a former Monarch specialist whose son died in 2014 – a direct casualty of Godzilla and the MUTOs. His ex-wife meanwhile, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), thinks the opposite. She’s created the Orca, a device that collates the cries of these monsters and allows Monarch to use them for communication. She and her daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), are kidnapped by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), an eco-terrorist who wants to release the world’s monsters to restore the planet to their ownership. When it is revealed that Emma herself wilfully took part in such plans, and thinks of humanity as an “infection”, it complicates matters for Mark who wants secure his daughter’s safety. As monsters like Rodan and King Ghidorah are released, the mighty Godzilla rises once again to fend off these challengers to his power.
The film’s character motivations are questionable, and they sometimes become so because they aren’t allowed time to develop. Emma’s belief that humanity is an “infection” that needs curing isn’t compelling. She believes in her cause because she lost her son. However, that one would come to such a dramatic conclusion, a conclusion that involves letting billions die worldwide in the inevitable chaos, is far too extreme to convince. Further strain to disbelief occurs after Ghidorah has been unleashed. An alpha predator himself, Ghidorah beckons other monsters to his call, and has them begin reshaping the earth to his liking. Emma is affronted by this, and protests to Alan Jonah that this isn’t how she wanted it to go. Emma seemed content to allow an appalling loss of life in releasing the monsters, but having Ghidorah take charge? Out of the question, apparently. Having a “plan” of how these creatures would reclaim the earth seems counterintuitive, and perhaps that’s the point, but it comes across as clumsy when your main proponent of the “monsters must rule” mantra turns around and adds “no, not like that”
Unfortunately, whilst the film attempts to weave a thread of redemption for Emma, little time is spent with her following the initial release of the monsters, so by the time the film tries to provoke sympathy for her in the climax, there’s no proper foundation for those feelings.
Ken Watanabe returns as Dr. Serizawa and is the highlight of the picture. Watanabe injects reverence into his performance. His belief in humanity’s ability to coexist with Godzilla is compelling. We believe in the depth of his connection with Godzilla, culminating in the standout scene of the film. In a beautifully constructed parallel of the 1954 Godzilla, Serizawa delivers by hand a weapon to the leviathan. Whereas in the original, Daisuke Serizawa delivers the monstrous Oxygen Destroyer, in King of the Monsters, Ichiro Serizawa delivers a nuclear warhead. Significantly, the intent is polar opposite, and Serizawa shares a moment of recognised friendship with Godzilla. Beautiful as this scene looks and feels, there is a point of contention. Given that an anti-nuclear weapon stance permeated Serizawa’s being in the prior film, it feels odd that his most significant scene sees him using one.
The Oxygen Destroyer makes its own appearance in the film, in a moment that wastes all potential. That the Oxygen Destroyer is integral to the original Godzilla, it is a shame that in King of the Monsters, the weapon is abruptly introduced and just as quickly forgotten; a monumental part of the Godzilla legacy given a fleeting appearance like a reference in the recent Star Wars sequels. Speaking of references, the film is littered with them. From Ghidorah’s initial name (Monster Zero) lifted from the US release title of 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster, to the protestors in the film’s opening who wave ‘Destroy All Monsters’ signs (taken from the title of the 1968 film), the film pays tribute to Toho’s Godzilla legacy whenever possible. If it weren’t for how clumsily such references are sometimes handled (as with the Oxygen Destroyer), these would seem included for purpose. But, as with the new Star Wars sequels, references can’t form the backbone of your film.
The CGI is excessive and grows tiresome. Wholly digital sequences make up the majority of the film and the stakes suffer as a result. The climactic battle in Boston is particularly exhausting. Everything is thrown at the screen: giant monsters battling mere metres away from the characters, rubble and debris littering the ground, and buildings collapsing. At a certain point, one’s disbelief falters and you ask yourself: how could any of these people survive when so much is happening around them? Whilst Gareth Edwards was criticised for the restraint he showed with action sequences, it was one of his film’s greatest strengths. Edwards’ restraint meant that when we reached the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs, it was affecting and meaningful because we’d been brought to that point carefully. With King of the Monsters, there’s only so much digital mayhem you can take before the stakes and your disbelief are lowered. If everything is digital and weightless, what is there to cling to?
As for the monsters themselves, the designs are superb. Godzilla’s spines have been slightly updated to evoke those of the 1954 design. Rodan looks incredible; arguably the best iteration of the character since the magnificent 1956 original. King Ghidorah’s heads take influence from his 1991 appearance, and Mothra, whilst smaller than the other monsters, retains the elegance of her Japanese forms. What Dougherty, like Edwards, gets right is recognising that these are characters. It’s a unique take to see Ghidorah’s individual heads given separate personalities. What’s unfortunate however, is that the battles between these giants are so dimly lit (often happening in heavy rain, snow, or the sea itself) and visually erratic that it’s often difficult to take them in; and character flourishes sometimes get lost.
Perhaps the worst part of King of the Monsters is its dreadfully misplaced humour. Liberally peppered throughout are quips, one-liners, and puns that just don’t hit the mark, ranging from cringe-inducing to downright awful. The worst offender is when one character says Ghidorah’s name, only for another to ask “Gonorrhoea?” incredulously. That it comes at a time of grave implications for our protagonists makes it all the more jarring. A close second for clunky humour is when a character says “Oh my God…” only for another to add “…zilla” in a line that would the test the mettle of even the most ardent dad joke fan.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a messy, clumsy film. It’s ambitious with its monsters and scope, but its character motivations aren’t compelling. Whilst many Western critics are preoccupied with arguing that the human drama here isn’t very good, others have leapt to claim that human drama isn’t why people watch Godzilla movies. I beg to differ. The best of Toho’s Godzilla films (and certainly Gareth Edwards’ film) have nuance and merit to their human characters. The battles in films like Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) or Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) are tense and exciting precisely because we care for the characters and their stakes. King of the Monsters doesn’t quite manage a wholly compelling human side to its story. Whilst Ken Watanabe is great as Serizawa, his shining scene can’t lift the film entirely. It’s clear that the film was made by people who love Toho’s Godzilla legacy, but the constant references feel flippant and less precise than the (few but distinct) ones included in the 2014 film. Whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Godzilla again, it’s a shame that King of the Monsters couldn’t quite support him this time.