Film Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

godzilla king of the monsters - movie poster one sheet 2019Even though he’s a 350-foot radioactive fire-breathing throwback to the Jurassic era, Godzilla has always had an ambiguous role in human society; is he the savior of humanity when other monsters menace, when aliens come from outer space or when huge robots run amok, or is he just as dangerous when he yet again rampages through Tokyo? The newest chapter in Godzilla’s colorful history, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, has a clear vision: He’s a good monster who helps us humans when the going gets tough. And in this installment, the going is definitely getting tough when King Ghidorah – a massive three-headed flying monster – rises to destroy Earth and all of us puny humans along the way.

Turns out that Godzilla is one of a group of Titans, beasts who have been hidden for centuries but are nonetheless carefully being monitored by the shadowy Monarch organization. Should they be destroyed? Should we wake them up? Should we exploit their monstrous DNA? The monsters form quite the gang, spread throughout the world, and leadership doesn’t just automatically go to our pal Godzilla, though. Turns out that it’s King Ghidorah who ends up in control of their actions as he ensures they all join forces to wreak maximal destruction on our planet.

The human side of the story centers on misunderstood teen Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her long-separated parents, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler). The two doctors invented a device called the ORCA that allows humans to communicate with the Titans, then subsequently destroyed it, fearing it could give humanity too much power over the monsters. The death and destruction from the 2014 film Godzilla directly affected every member of the Russell family and they’re still reeling over its impact five years later. Mark has grown to dislike people and hides in the wilderness, researching wolf pack behavior, far, far away from Monarch and the Titans. Emma, for her part, secretly rebuilt the ORCA after publicly destroying it. Dangerous, yes, but darn useful too, particularly for an environmental activist. The heart of the film is Madison, however, and she’s tight with her mom and skeptical of her estranged father, though she has concerns about Mom’s ability to make smart decisions vis-a-vis the Titans.

After Emma and Madison are kidnapped by eco-terrorist Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) and his band of thugs, Monarch calls in Mark to advise and generally save the day. We learn that Colonel Jonah actually wants to “level” the global playing field between humans and Titans through mass destruction of civilization. He’s the bad guy, ya know. When he learns about the ORCA, he kidnaps Emma and Madison to get his hands on the device. Surprise, Emma and Colonel Jonah share a disgust for how humans have trashed the environment and put the future of both humankind and the planet at risk. Can the Titans cause sufficient destruction to essentially “reboot” the planet? Jonah is pretty sure they can and is willing to gamble with every life on the planet to find out.

Meanwhile, Mark is deep in the Monarch world as led by Colonel Diane Foster (Aisha Hinds) with the able, though oft-ignored advice of Godzilla’s #1 fan and supporter Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). Monarch’s goal seems to become one of destroying any and all monsters, though Serizawa insists Godzilla is going to help rescue the planet from King Ghidorah, while Mark keeps muttering that they should all just be destroyed to eliminate any threat.

There’s not much of a coherent storyline in this monster rampage action film. It’s really all about the monsters, whether it’s Mothra stretching her massive bioluminescent moth wings or Rodan, a fierce pterodactyl-like bird who is quite the formidable foe. There are other Titans, but the big four are Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra, and their battles are appropriately epic and theater-shaking, particular in IMAX. The monsters are also all blessed with coherent and consistent roles in the story that make sense to the viewer, which is a lot more than you can say about the various characters who populate the screen, however talented the actors.

Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) from Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Madison Russell (Brown) from “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

In fact, it’s baffling to try and understand the leadership role that Dr. Mark Russell is granted as the story unfolds, particularly given the confusing motivation behind his decisions and cranky comments throughout. His ex Dr. Emma Russell has a similar muddy motivation and ends up as possible the world’s daftest or most naive paleobiologist environmental activist. It’s Brown – beloved actor “Eleven” from the blockbuster Stranger Things series – who owns the screen as Madison, in conjunction with the always likeable Watanabe reprising his role as the Japanese daikaiju expert Dr. Serizawa.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the 2014 Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla installment is that the film rebooted the monster movie genre and wove together an engaging human story along with a good job of explaining Godzilla’s back story in a way that was consistent with his 60 year cinematic history. Edwards isn’t the director of Godzilla: Kind of the Monsters, however, and it shows. Director Michael Dougherty has barely any directing experience and his most recent film was the amusing, low budget 2015 horror comedy Krampus. He was not the right person for this epic monster movie, however, and the movie suffers because of it.

And yet, there’s still something immensely satisfying about watching massive monsters clash and wreak destruction. The visual effects, the sound effects, the monsters themselves are all epic and wonderfully cinematic. Godzilla has evolved into being a savior of humanity (a bit of an odd evolution given his origin story) and it’s hard not to cringe when he’s hurt and cheer when he lands a solid chomp or turns that wicked blue nuclear flame on a beastie!

This is not a great Godzilla movie, but it is good summer popcorn fare nonetheless. Godzilla rocks, Brown is an appealing, earnest young lead and there’s no question that Watanabe is heroic in his role, so grab that tub o’ corn, that 24oz bucket of soda and enjoy a movie that’s perfect for the big screen and a lazy summer afternoon.

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