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Does KING OF THE MONSTERS Earn Its Crown?

Tim Stevens Culture, Movies and Television, Movies Leave a Comment

Before we get into this thing, I have to let you know. While KING OF THE MONSTERS boasts plenty of giant creatures rushing and crushing, smashing and bashing, there is one notable absence. At no point should you expect to see Godzookie. I am sorry, but that is just the summer movie season we live in.

King of the Monsters: Monster Zero
Monster Zero slumbers, for now, in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

The Idea Behind GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

It has been five years since the latest American GODZILLA movie was released. In the world of the film, the same is true. Godzilla has, apparently, disappeared and the kaiju research/hunting company Monarch is increasingly being pressured by the American government to become more militaristic in its aims.

At one Monarch facility, the company is secretly monitoring a giant egg that will soon birth the pupae stage of Mothra. Doctor Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) live onsite. The destruction of San Francisco in the last film claimed Emma’s son/Madison’s brother as a casualty. The resulting trauma and pain destroyed Emma’s marriage to Mark (Kyle Chandler). Now he is half a world away studying wolves and she is perfecting the Orca, a device to “communicate” with Godzilla and his fellow titans. As Mothra rises, Emma seems to do just that — just in time for ecoterrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) to show up and kidnap the two Russell women.

Alan then takes Emma and Madison to the Monarch facility in Antarctica and orders them to wake “Monster Zero.” Mark finds out and gives chase with a cadre of Monarch types including Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Ilene Chen (Ziyi Zhang), Colonel Diane Foster (Aisha Hinds), Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch), and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). It is all a real monster mash after that with Titans being awoken all willy-nilly like and Godzilla seemingly becoming humanity’s only hope.

King of the Monsters: Maddie
Millie Bobby Brown sure seems to like destruction in KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Writing GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

These kinds of movies always feel less about the writing and more about the wrangling. Director Michael Dougherty and writer Zach Shields — drawing from a story by GODZILLA and KONG: SKULL ISLAND screenwriter Max Borenstein — more or less follow the formula. They give characters the occasional quip, the suggestion of a personality or at least a central drive, and keep the plot on the rails.

Pacing is an issue, but in kaiju movies, it always is for me. In comparison to the languid GODZILLA, however, KING OF THE MONSTERS at least has some pep in its step. As the dust settles, a viewer may realize that it was less actual movement than the sensation of movement. However, one can quickly lose themselves for wide stretches in that sensation and spectacle.

With a cast of this many, balance can often be an issue. I would say the screenplay mostly gets it right. We check in regularly with each player in a way that fits their plot significance and no one feels any more underserved than the rest. Jonah Alan, the human villain of the thing, is the notable exception. He is little more than a human catalyst, setting off a chain of events and then largely disappearing. When he does show up, he has some decent “I am not the bad guy, I am the only one dealing with reality” speechifying. However, it is difficult to ignore just how easily he could be cut without damaging the rest of the story.

King of the Monsters: The Doctors
Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe look upon mighty works, despair during GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Casting GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

As is often the case in these movies, character development is not so much a concern. People are dying by the scores. You have 25 characters to keep on track, most of which will improbably survive. Thus, you need actors who can sell lines. These lines are often either outright ludicrous, somewhat significant, or have the hint of humor — if not actually being funny. On the latter front, Whitford does a lot with a little. I am not sure he is on anyone else’s wavelength, but he is working damn hard to make the audience crack a smile.

Watanabe, as Godzilla’s biggest fan, gets to handle the bulk of the weary significance. Chandler provides the emotional heft and seems to be spending his first 20 or so minutes on-screen auditioning for Batman. Thankfully, he eventually ditches his whisper-growl for his more natural voice. Brown, despite trailers suggesting otherwise, is largely a non-factor in the movie. The movie jerks Farmiga from one motivation to the next. It never gives her enough time to sell us on any of them, be it a friend to the Titans, mom twisted away from herself by grief, or hero who realized the error of her ways.

Ziyi ends up, very subtly, being the human MVP of the film. She sells both the humor and the gravitas of her (main) role. It is wonderful to have her but like last year’s THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, she has to do the heavy lifting. I love when she shows up in American films because she is great. I just wish we Americans would give her a script that is worthy of her talent.

When Titans Fight
Some of that Titan on Titan combat from GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

GODZILLA as a Character

I am glad they kept our thicc Lizard Daddy beefy. It gives the design an updated feel without making him unrecognizable.

They also seem to have made Godzilla more expressive in this installment. I think, largely, that is a good choice. However, there are moments where it feels like, for all the world, that ‘Zilla is about to look down the barrel of the camera, tip his head ever so slightly and say, “’Sup?” Having him be expressive is a good thing. Perhaps next time that expressiveness can feel a bit more like a beast with emotions and a bit less like a guy who just really wants to party but has to keep taking breaks to thump his neighbors back into line.

King of the Monsters: Dr. Chen
Ziyi Zhang enjoys a blue light bath in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

Directing GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Moving from TRICK ‘R TREAT and KRAMPUS to KING OF THE MONSTERS is not an insignificant step up for Michael Dougherty. He does seem ready to make the jump, though, and shifts to the massive scope of GODZILLA with very little hiccup.

What undoes him is the color palette and fight choreography. On the first charge, this movie is so blue. And like so many CGI extravaganzas of the past decade, so dark and rainy. As a result, the movie is frequently flattened. What could be incredible imagery — Godzilla approaching an underwater base, for instance — instead is hard to read. I know we all want to make CGI as believable as possible and darkness covers the proverbial seams. If viewers end up with a dark obscured image, though, who cares how well it sells the CGI beasties?

As for fight choreography, look, I know we cannot have Godzilla and Rodan engaging in wire-fu or even gunkata. However, there is no reason monsters fighting cannot be filmed with some flair. Perhaps it is also a casualty of the color palette but the fight sequences feel distant and static. So many want to see KING OF THE MONSTERS for some good Titan-on-Titan slugging. The film seems aware and willing to provide. However, just showing it is not enough. The fights should be interesting, too.

Charles Dance explains his dastardly plan to a foregrounded Vera Farmiga during a scene from KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)

That’s a Wrap

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS has what I call a Hulk problem. See, for the longest time, the rap on the Hulk in movies went something like this: “It’s so easy. I want to see ol’ Jade Jaws smash everything and punch punch punch another gamma fueled behemoth.” Then fans got that in the climax to INCREDIBLE HULK, but the moment they got it they realized an endless fight is not actually what we wanted.

So too is the experience of KING OF MONSTERS. No, fans do not want the slow, deliberate pacing of the 2014 film, especially with bland human characters. However, a chaotic film that devolves into rushing from one overly dark blue Titan fight to the next is no solution either. Seeing the fury of Godzilla unleashed should be a rush. Thrilling and scary all at once. If, instead, it feels repetitive and your pulse barely quickens? Something is off in the mix. In KING OF MONSTERS, sadly, something is definitely off in the mix.

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