Is the monster movie a lie? The title says it all, a movie with a monster in it. Therefore the monster should be the main character, the central focus and the best part about the movie. You put a big monster in a movie and the rest will write itself. So why is that not always true? As good as the monster can be in a monster movie, the human characters are still the ones who can up carrying the picture or dropping the ball. As iconic as the shark was in Jaws, the ones who make the movie memorable are distinct personalities of Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. As monstrous as the worms of Tremors are, the people the audience has to pay attention to are the quirky hicks of Perfection, Nevada. Even in today’s monster movies like last year’s Rampage, the star of the movie is not the giant gorilla or the flying crocodile, The Rock is. The lesson of monster movies is that, despite the title, the human characters still have to be the most interesting part of a monster movie.
That lesson was unfortunately not taken to heart by Godzilla, the 2014 American remake of the omnipresent Japanese horror movie made 60 years prior. Gareth Edwards’s take on the giant dinosaur knew exactly how to make Godzilla’s return a big deal, teasing and tantalizing the monster’s presence by having him creep around the movie’s background for 90 percent of the film. When the monster finally did make his epic appearance, audiences around the world cheered in excitement and possibly relief considering the lack of Godzilla and the overwhelming presence of boring humans clogging up the rest of the movie. For all the justice Godzilla ‘14 did to its title character, it did a disservice to its audience by not giving them a real human connection to latch on to. It didn’t see the lie and it seems like Warner Bros. Pictures doesn’t see it either with their plans to double-down on monsters by shoving Godzilla and King Kong together next year. But how do we get there?
EVEN MORE MONSTERS! Godzilla: King of the Monsters is partly a sequel to Godzilla ‘14 but mostly an expansion of WB’s Monsterverse, where the studio digs through all of Godzilla lore to find more baddies for him to butt heads with until he meets the Eighth Wonder of the World (introduced in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island). Set years after Godzilla’s showdown in San Francisco in Godzilla ‘14, world leaders are growing impatient with the actions of Monarch, the secret organization monitoring the world for the big dinosaur. It turns out Godzilla’s arrival was not an isolated incident as more giant monsters (or “titans” as the movie dubs them) have been found around the world, lying dormant in the Earth waiting for something to bring them back. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his Monarch comrades think humans can live in harmony with the titans while world leaders believe the titans should be killed. However, a former British military official (Charles Dance) believes the titans should roam free on the Earth to cleanse it of the deadly plague known as humanity. He kidnaps one of Monarch’s top scientists (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) to use Monarch technology to awaken the rest of the titans. Monarch recruits the scientist’s ex-husband (Kyle Chandler) to help track them down while also betting on one force to stop the mad titans: Godzilla himself.
It’s sad to report that Godzilla: King of the Monsters has contracted a terrible case of Roland Emmerich-syndrome: too many characters, too many subplots and too little care to be afforded to it all. King of the Monsters has an incredibly-stacked cast and yet there’s no real sense of a main character. It starts with a mother and daughter on a quest of discovery, then the scientists of Monarch trying to defend Godzilla’s honor, then the absent husband/father shows up to help, then it goes back to Monarch and then the mother/daughter duo and it keeps pinballing between the seemingly endless character cavalcade. Even Godzilla himself, who does have more screen time here than in his last outing, feels like he only has a bit part in his own epic. King of the Monsters has another rare quality to it, in that its writing makes you want every single human character to shut up. The screenplay, written by director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Superman Returns) and Zach Shields (Krampus), has stupidity aplenty both in its exposition and dialogue. There are specs of comic relief that come off annoying and the “science” explaining how the monsters come to blows is blurted out at breakneck speed, most likely to avoid anyone picking up on how stupid it all sounds.
This leaves the cast with little to work with and all depending on how much investment they put into the script. Unfortunately, most of the people in King of the Monsters act like they’re here for a paycheck or a shot at relevance. Farmiga might be here as a favor to WB in between sequels to The Conjuring, which is fitting considering how she acts like her soul has been sucked out by a ghost. Chandler is the perfect everyman-looking actor to fit into such a crowded production and he does his duty of looking concerned in all the madness. Brown, for someone who has such a bubbly personality in real life, can’t seem to shake off the worry she puts on for Stranger Things and is merely here to be a token kid character. Even Dance, who should revel in playing a villain in a monster movie after his time on Game of Thrones, is nothing but an afterthought. Even after those stars, King of the Monsters still has a stocked cast that it either wastes or uses poorly. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch are the two comic relief characters who don’t say one funny thing in the movie while the likes of David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Ziyi Zhang are nothing but bit players. Only Watanabe brings any real emotional investment to the table and, rightly so, gets the best character arc of the whole movie.
On a narrative and character base, King of the Monsters is an annoying and moronic experience. What saves it from being a disaster on the level of Emmerich’s own Godzilla movie in 1998 is the visual splendor. Though he sometimes moves the camera around like a 12-year-old on a sugar rush, director Dogherty knows the money shots are all during the fights between Godzilla and the monsters. There are some truly striking images in King of the Monsters both when the monsters are doing their respective intimidation poses and when they tussle. Each monster has his or her own signature color scheme Dogherty and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, Garden State) wash over the towering titans. The slighted-muted yellow makes Ghidorah look as unpredictable and frightening as the lighting he generates, while Rodan emerges from a volcano draped in molten red and orange. They mix together surprisingly well on-screen and when the titans clash with each other, there’s crisp and chaotic action for the audience to observe. The designs of said monsters are impressive and occasionally scary, from the demonic menace of the three-headed Ghidorah and the winged Rodan to the lush beauty of Mothra. Godzilla himself remains a wondrous site, terrifying up close with his sharp facial features but still adorable with his chubby body charging to fight monsters. It’s a great use of modern computer-generated design to make him a true monster while still having traces of the goofy suit worn by many in the original movies.
A miracle was likely required to make Godzilla: King of the Monsters a successful endeavor and while it has its highs, there’s still a hefty amount dragging it down. There’s no likable humans to root for and there’s too much blatant stupidity to ignore. That said, seeing the title characters captured on screen and clashing in 2019 is a sight to behold. Craftsmanship applied to the schlock of monster movies makes for great blockbuster entertainment and while King of the Monsters has a rocky dismount, it somehow barely sticks the landing. There’s still a question of how King Kong is going to fit into the universe King of the Monsters sets up, but at least there’s hope that marquee event could turn into a legitimate entertaining movie.