Godzilla: King Of The Monsters
It is fair to say that Legendary/Warner Bros/Toho’s “Monsterverse” movies have made a liar out of me. In 2014 I did not recommend Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, on the grounds that it was a plot-lacking piece of spectacle bait, and indicated I wouldn’t be back for more. But I went along to the similarly plot-lacking Kong: Skull Island a few years later, and was similarly underwhelmed. Hell, go back a bit further and see my withering assessment of the dramatically over-rated Pacific Rim. And so, when Godzilla: King Of The Monsters was due for release, you would think going to see it would be the last thing on my mind.
Maybe it was the actually decent cast that got me in the door. Maybe I thought that the third time would be the charm. Or maybe I should be brutally honest with myself and say that spectacle-bait does work sometimes, when you want to go and see a film and the choices are limited. So, yes, I bought in to what will actually be my fourth Godzilla film this year. Was this a Kafka-esque exercise to repetitive futility, or have they finally managed to right the wrongs of the kaiju genre?
During the Godzilla/MUTO battle in San Francisco, Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) lose their son, leaving daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) an only child. A few years later, Mark is called back into the fold of Monarch, an organisation dedicated to studying “Titans” like Godzilla, when Emma and Madison are kidnapped by a band of eco-terrorists led by the vicious Jonah (Charles Dance). His goal is the activation of a host of monsters to bring balance to the world, most terribly the three-headed dragon Ghidorah: only the reigning King of the Monsters may stand in their way.
I suppose we should get the very obvious out of the way first. This film takes the general positives of both 2014’s Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island and just injects a straight shot of adrenaline into them. There are more kaiju fights here than in the other two films put together, and more variety in the kaiju’s themselves. The battles are heavyweight title bouts in monster form, and showcase a skill in CGI action and destruction that can claim to be in the top tier of such things. There are some really great looking moments: Godzilla’s “threat display” while swimming towards an underwater base; Mothra emerging from behind a waterfall in a rainbow of colour; Ghidorah’s three heads snapping at each other in a cross between kaiju and Three Stooges; Rodan’s aerial stalking of jet fighters like a hawk hunting some sparrows. It sounds great, it looks impressive and it is your classic “has to be seen on the big-screen” effort.
I’ll go even further than that, and say that the drama involving the Titans is actually one the best parts of King Of The Monsters from a character perspective. The Titans have relationships and rivalries with each other, and while it is understandably simplistic, you actually do get a sense of how this works, and what the results can be. They have presence that goes beyond “big monster”: Godzilla gives off a command and confidence that could be described, dare I say, as magnetism and Mothra has a beautiful allure, while Ghidorah really does feel like the kind of villain who would be cackling maniacally (with an English accent) if he was in human form, with the subservient Rodan as his sniveling henchman. It could be said that King Of The Monsters would be a better film if it was a 60 minute show-reel of monster fights, with additional time for this wordless interaction between Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah (and the other 13 or so Titans who pop up for brief cameos).
So, let it not be said that I do not appreciate the raison d’etre of these films. I am not so jaded that I am completely against the idea of a big budget CGI extravaganza of giant monster fights. With that out of the way, let’s get into it.
This film reportedly cost somewhere between $170 and $200 million dollars to make. You cannot, in my estimation, make a film for that amount of money, and then present something that sacrifices plot for mindless action, and decent performances for sleepwalking, to this degree with a straight face. And yet, not only has this been done, but I have encountered a large amount of counter-points that amount to “What did you expect?”
What did I expect? With this cast, I expected a hell of a lot more than I got, but then again what could they possibly have done with a script this weak and shallow, or a director this inexperienced (Michael Dougherty’s biggest credit to date being the Christmas-themed horror Krampus)? Too many of King Of The Monsters‘ principals are ambling through the production, but there is only so much you can expect from them when the script largely calls for predictable dramatic pronouncements (so many countdowns!) and gazing off screen at some giant thing. The techno-babble and exposition looms large in every scene, crippling any effort to make drama. The human element of King Of The Monsters – the broken family at its centre, the crypto-zoologist organisation at war with itself, etc – is simply broken.
Kyle Chandler, who once wowed me as Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights, spends his lead role engaged in a staring match with Godzilla. Bradley Whitford, of The West Wing and more recently Get Out, is turned into an annoying tech guy who has a line of dialogue implying he likes to record sex tapes. Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs Of A Geisha, has “diversity casting for the sake of it” written all over her part, and is shamefully wasted. Charles Dance is a nothing antagonist, getting to showcase precious little of his presence and authority. Sally Hawkins steps into the “Killed off too early” role that Bryan Cranston inhabited in 2014. And Millie Bobby Brown, so amazing in Stranger Things, is whinging teenager #1.
The ones I want to draw attention to, as their roles point to deeper flaws, are Vera Farmiga and Ken Watanabe. Farmiga gives a really uninspired performance as the film’s surprise villain, responsible for its lowest moment, an elongated monologue where the primary analogy of global warming is laid out so starkly it’s hard to even call it an analogy, and where the truly tired trope of “Humans are a virus and my mass genocide is the cure” rears its ugly and unwelcome head (I’m amazed we didn’t get any kind of “Man is the real monster” line).
King Of The Monsters wants to live up to its predecessor’s ability to be a metaphor for a serious issue in real-life, but in practice it’s akin to the over-the-top nonsense of The Day After Tomorrow. Doughherty treats Emma in a bi-polar fashion, wanting the audience to sympathise with, then hate, then sympathise with her again, despite her being a greater monster than Hitler and Stalin in body-count terms. The possibility of examining the process of radicalisation for an environmentalist goes a begging. Instead, in honour of her son killed by a giant monster, she wants to kill a lot more people with giant monsters. The contradiction is never even pointed out to her.
And then there is poor Ken Watanabe, an actor I really admire, whom I suspect has some reverence for the source material. He’s actually OK here, but is landed with trying to get across some of the film’s most awkward ideas, namely that some of the giant monsters killing everyone and destroying our cities are actually heroic figures. His Dr Serizawa thinks we should be sad when Godzilla dies (don’t worry, it doesn’t take) and horrified at the idea that humanity might be better off if we were to exterminate all of the giant monsters killing everyone and destroying our cities, since there might be some side-benefits to their trampling around once they have (temporarily) finished killing everyone and destroying our cities.
This condescending claptrap, repeated ad nauseum as some variation of “this world really belongs to them”, results in a laughable end credits sequence of news headlines and blog posts discussing things like Titan droppings being a superfuel, as if anybody would be talking about anything other than the mass killing of people and destruction of our cities. There’s also a constant refrain of the Titans being the original gods of the Earth, taken to an eye-rolling visual extreme when Ghidorah, roaring from atop an erupting volcano, is framed against a comparatively less showy Catholic cross.
There are other, more minor, faults – the odd pacing, the repetitive action beats, the overused cliches of emotional manipulations – but these are the big things, and they did not have to be there. For $200 million you can create a better script, hire a better director and get a more engaged cast. I’ve read that King Of The Monsters‘ two hour running time was cut down from a three hour edit, and I’d actually be curious to see what ended up on on the floor. I don’t mind length if what is present is worthwhile, hence why my favourite kaiju-esque flick is Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a film that did manage to have it all, characters, plot, monster action, the lot, just with a length that many found excessive. I suspect that King Of The Monsters may have been cut down, and thus dumbed down, a bit to become more of a mass appeal exercise, but if so why not go further, and make that 60 minute CGI show-reel, and charge people to see it?
So, I do not want to hear “What did you expect?”. If we actively lower our expectations for films that have budgets of this size, if we surrender to the tide of this recent generation of badly written sci-fi trash that the Transformers franchise kicked off in earnest, what we will have is a plethora of soulless spectaculars. Very palatable, action-packed, visually impressive spectaculars, but soulless nonetheless, with little in the way of genuine emotional connection or re-watch value.
Thinking on the other Godzilla film I have seen this year, The Planet Eater, makes me wonder about expectations. I wasn’t a fan of that conclusion to a largely overwrought and difficult to comprehend anime trilogy, but it did try to do the idea differently at the very least. It’s not entirely fair to compare The Planet Eater with King Of The Monsters since they are so radically different (Ghidorah there is, and I quote myself, “an intangible three-headed snake dragon…who thrives on the faith of humans“). But even for all of The Planet Eater’s faults, it left a bigger impression on me than King Of The Monsters. It may not have had much action, it went too far to the other extreme. But it was a more worthwhile artistic effort than this monster fight rumble.
And I fully admit that me seeing King Of The Monsters, and paying money to do so, is just as much a part of the problem. I got sucked in, like so many others who saw this film and disliked it got sucked in. Too often these days it seems that that’s what Hollywood marketing machines are for, to negate the possibly bad effects of word of mouth and get people in the doors quick. By the time this review goes out, King Of The Monsters will already be falling off the radar, and has not done as well financially as it’s earlier editions. I deem this to be no unjust thing: it points to possibility that people do not want a monster film that is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.
They want something more; something inventive, something to connect to. Godzilla: King Of The Monsters is not that film, and I doubt Godzilla Vs Kong, due out next year, will be that either. Perhaps they will be able to wrap a decent narrative around this hyper-heavyweight title fight before they team up to take on Mecha-Ghidorah or whatever that film’s Doomsday will turn out to be. But I doubt it. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).