Many fans eagerly awaited the release of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla in 2014, hoping to see a return to form and a possible new franchise built around the atomic monster first created by Toho Studios in 1954. While the film quickly turned a profit with an opening weekend of close to $100 million, many detractors found Edwards’ film to be too focused on the stories of human characters (that the audience had a hard time connecting to) and most importantly, a movie too light on the kaiju action monsters lovers expected. If this is how you felt about Edwards’ version, save your money and fly as fast as you can from (on the back of Rodan perhaps) the follow-up film Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Everything that fans complained about in 2014’s franchise-starter rear their ugly monster heads once again in King of the Monsters, with even less coherence and plausibility than the original. If you thought Godzilla (2014) contained threadbare sub plots and exposition, get ready for scenes that will make you dig out your old VHS copy of Godzilla’s Revenge (1969) for a lesson in storytelling techniques. The central story revolves around a fractured family (featuring Kyle Chadler and Vera Farmiga as Mr. and Mrs. Russell and Millie Bobby Brown as their daughter Madison) which proves to be more distracting than engaging throughout the entire film. If you didn’t care about the strained relationship dynamics of Godzilla’s Brody clan (played by Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olson, and Carson Bolde), you’ll be be comparing their dramatic performances to Terms of Endearment by the time King of the Monsters ends. The odd, nonsensical battle for the loyalty and love of Madison is laughable, and includes inexplicable double-crosses, extreme close-ups, and ham-fisted dialogue that plods along slower than Godzilla himself.
The problem starts with the Russell family story-line, but it doesn’t end there. Every human actor on screen delivers a lifeless performance, despite the fact that many members of the cast are accomplished actors. Actors such as Ken Watanabe, Zizi Zhang, Sally Hawkins, and Charles Dance have all delivered memorable performances in genre films and series in the past, but they are saddled with such of a mess of a script, that not even director Michael Dougherty can get a passable line reading out of them.
The prime example of this is Charles Dance’s Jonah Alan. When we get our first glimpse of Dance as Alan, we are told he is an “eco-terrorist”, and we have to take their word for it because nothing establishes his character as an “eco-terrorist” at any point in the film. It is clear that Dance was cast in this role so the audience can quickly identify Dance as the man who played Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones and assume that he is a similar type of evil genius since he exhibits the same haughty smirk that made the him famous on HBO. This “telling” about characters and plot points continues throughout the film, and not only insults the audience’s intelligence, but wastes valuable monster battle time.
Although the script and performances leave much to be desired, Godzilla: King of the Monsters cardinal sin is the lack of kaiju action. Unbelievably, King of the Monsters actually contains less monster mayhem scenes (and less dynamic ones to boot) than Edwards’ Godzilla. All of the trailers promised a monster slugfest not witnessed since 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, with Ghidora, Rodan, Mothra, and other lesser-known creatures getting in on the battle royale. So much time is spent on the human story, that the advertised battles are short, underwhelming and over much too quickly. This is a real shame because unlike CGI-fests such as Transformers, the giant monsters look believable and menacing.
The monsters are also much too focused on humans than they should be, with multiple shots of the enormous creatures engaging in eye-to-eye stare downs (no less than four) with their tiny, insignificant co-stars. This isn’t the only camera/story technique used ad nauseam in the film, as there are many close-up shots of full screen facial reactions to the titans, last minute Godzilla saves, and boats, submarines, planes, helicopters, and helicopter-planes being blown just out of reach of a monster or explosion. All of these shots and scenes amount to lazy scripting and film making, and bore the audience to death, when they should be celebrating the heavy weight title bout for the monster championship of the world.
Hopefully, the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong feature will remember that ticket buyers do not care about half-baked family strife or images of the human race rallying to fight alongside the monsters. Making a Godzilla movie should not be this difficult. The formula has been the same since Haruo Nakajima first donned the rubber suit; a basic plot (usually involving scientists in lab coats, espionage, and/or alien invasions) functions as a vehicle to steer the story towards the only reason people buy tickets to a Godzilla movie, the titanic battles between larger-than-life monsters.
Critics often claim that zombie movies are more about us than the monsters. And this is the reason all zombie films are essentially about the human condition and nature of humanity when faced with difficult moral choices. Conversely, the films featuring Japan’s greatest beasts are about the monsters run amok, without substantial or significant human intervention, even when some of those monsters are man-made, or metaphors for humanities mistakes. The key message (and action) is delivered when the “genie is out of the bottle”, beyond humanities control, and, as Watanabe’s character Dr. Ishiro Serizawa says, we “let them fight”.