Godzilla: King of the Monsters – Film Review by David Turpin
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writers: Michael Dougherty (screenplay by), Zach Shields (screenplay by)
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ziyi Zhang
Five years ago, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla re-boot/re-make met with a somewhat muted response, likely because the oddly high-minded film conjured an appropriately monolithic tone, but was surprisingly sparing with actual monster action. Still, it was enough of a worldwide hit to spawn a sequel, and this summer’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters – under the auspices of new director/co-writer Michael Dougherty – immediately sets out to right the perceived deficiencies of its predecessor. In other words, this one’s next-to-nothing but monster action, for its full two-hour-plus running time.
The plot – or more appropriately, the frame – goes thusly: A group of ‘eco-terrorists’ led by an underused Charles Dance have decided to redress Earth’s natural balance by awakening a shedload of enormous prehistoric monsters. To do so, they abduct an idealistic scientist played by Vera Farmiga, and her inexplicably omnipresent teenage daughter, played by Millie Bobby Brown. To the rescue come said scientist’s hard-bitten ex-husband (Kyle Chandler), along with a shadowy organisation called MONARCH, whose benevolence we are expected to take as read because its numbers include a couple of holdovers from the first film (including Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe). Naturally, MONARCH decide that the best way to subdue the other monsters is to draw Godzilla into the fray – apparently on the assumption that his instincts are naturally allied to those of the human race. How this squares with the fact that human self-interest and the good of the planet are self-evidently not the same thing is never addressed, despite being the pillar of the villains’ beliefs.
Given the plethora of man-made terrors that are inching our species and its home planet closer to extinction, this seems an odd moment to fixate on the threat posed by ‘eco-terrorists’, of all people. But here were are, and you won’t have time to think about it anyway, because there are monsters flying from every corner of the IMAX screen, and the Dolby Surround is liable to melt your face before you can scratch your head.
The cast is a mixed bag. Chandler remains one of the most forgettable faces in contemporary cinema; Farmiga is an old hand at elevating glorified B-movies, and she does her best; Brown traffics mainly in the kinds of gasps and noble half-smiles that will probably make good GIFs on her teenage followers’ timelines. Further down the cast-list, Aisha Hinds gives good Stern Lady Corporal, and the reliably lovely O’Shea Jackson Jr. is… in the film. There’s nothing here to rival the sheer pointlessness of Juliette Binoche’s mystifying five-minute turn in Edwards’ film – but Ziyi Zhang comes close, donning some confusing wigs to play a MONARCH scientist and, inexplicably, her twin sister who is also a MONARCH scientist, but plays no actual role in the action.
But the film is about the monsters, not the people – and in that department, it mostly delivers. Godzilla himself is pleasingly old-fashioned in his design – a giant, furious Walnut Whip blasting fiery breath hither and yon. His main ally, Mothra, is probably the most appealing of the creatures, but she gets disappointingly short shrift. Godzilla’s chief nemesis, the three-headed Ghidorah, is a winner. Some of the early detail hints that each of his heads may be, to some limited degree, independent – a possibility that links intriguingly to contemporary understanding of octopus anatomy, and the quasi-independent status of octopus and cuttlefish tentacles (although it’s unclear where Ghidorah’s central brain might reside). Although this never eventuates in any way, it at least suggests some degree of thought about the zoology and interior lives of these creatures – in addition to their ability to trample safely depopulated cities.
Unfortunately, Dougherty has been no more successful than Evans in solving the central problem of any Godzilla film, which is that the creatures – unlike those of, say, Jurassic Park (1993) – are simply so huge that it’s difficult to contrive action sequences that meaningfully involve both human and monster characters. The disparity in scale is such that, in cross-cutting between vistas of monster conflict and mid-shots of human calamity, there is frustratingly little sense of the two co-existing in the same physical space. Perhaps someday, a Godzilla film will be bold enough to dispense with cardboard humans altogether, and allow us to simply enjoy the spectacle of the creatures living their day-to-day lives, stomping, chomping and – yes, perhaps even sharing more intimate moments (which are the subject of a few lazy jokes in the current film). This film might play as a kind of inversion of Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s celebrated insect film Microcosmos (1996). Call it Macrocosmos. After the cacophonous but unstirring Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it sounds like a breath of fresh, radioactive air.