Godzilla has had a tumultuous relationship with Hollywood. His first film, Godzilla, the 1954 Toho classic directed by Ishirō Honda, was re-edited for American audiences as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. The result is an inferior movie, but one that made Godzilla as star in the West. Decades later in 1998, TriStar Pictures and Roland Emmerich got the bright idea to make an American Godzilla film. It was a disaster and its titular monster barely recognizable, but it did again propel Godzilla back into the spotlight. In response, Toho began production on new era of Godzilla films in order to repair the big lizard’s reputation, but the glitz and glamor of Hollywood would continue to beckon.
In 2009, Toho struck a deal with Legendary Pictures to produce a series of a films based around their classic kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”), later dubbed the MonsterVerse. The first of these films was 2014’s Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards. The film was a hit and its success led to more MonsterVerse movies being greenlit – Kong: Skull Island, this weekend’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and next year’s Godzilla vs Kong. After being repeatedly misunderstood by Hollywood, Godzilla is now headlining his own shared universe and finally enjoying the respect that a star of his stature has always deserved.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters – directed by Michael Dougherty from a script by Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Max Borenstein – is a sequel worthy not only of its star, but its iconic kaiju cast. It sees the return of Godzilla as he battles rival monster, King Ghidorah, as well as other Titans (the MonsterVerse’s official terminology for the kaiju) including Mothra and Rodan. Tracking Godzilla as always is Monarch, the secret organization which first discovered the Titans and who in this film must assemble a team to rescue one of their own: paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). They’ve been kidnapped by an eco-terrosist, Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who has also stolen the Orca – a device Russell created along with her husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler), which mimics the Titans’ bioacoustics and has the potential to communicate or even control them.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is simply put a great Godzilla movie. There’s action, spectacle, and all the thrills expected of a film built around the clashing of Titans. Never before have Toho’s kaiju looked so good. Great care was clearly taken in updating their designs, seamlessly translating them from rubber suits and models on strings to today’s digital effects. These Titans are breathtaking, and the cinematography of Lawrence Sher captures not only how menacing they are, but how beautiful, too. However, unlike 2014’s Godzilla which shot Godzilla primarily from a human’s perspective, King of the Monsters puts viewers on the Titans’ level, and some of the epic scale is lost because of this. Still, it’s an easy thing to overlook when watching the likes of Rodan and Mothra tearing into each other in midair.
The Titans are definitely the stars of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, just as it should be. Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan are even credited as playing themselves, which is just the sort of nod fans appreciate. Even more impressive than how incredible the Titans look, is how the visual effects artists manage to give each one a distinct personality. Even each of Ghidorah’s three heads act apart from one another, seeming to bicker or egg each other on in battle. Seeing these Titans together on screen is the real draw of a film like this, and King of the Monsters not only understands this, but emphasizes it, with the whole film working to facilitate these moments.
That being said, with so much emphasis on getting Godzilla and Ghidorah to go toe-to-toe, any other element of the story suffers. For instance, many of the complaints levied against King of the Monsters is that the human characters are too undeveloped. This is largely true, but not without good reason. For one, the movie knows who the audience is really here for (and it’s not the humans), but even more than that, King of the Monsters uses an ensemble comprised of archetypes rather than fully-fleshed out characters. It’s the sort of human element that best serves a story that’s ultimately about two giant monsters duking it out; much more and the picture would be weighed down by extraneous plot. Perhaps one day, Legendary will make a Godzilla film that perfectly marries human drama with that of its Titans, but 2014’s Godzilla couldn’t manage it and King of the Monsters doesn’t either.
Still, the human characters aren’t entirely useless. In fact, quite a few of them are delightful, brought to life by talented actors who are fully aware of the sort of film they’re in. Ken Watanabe returns as Dr. Ishirō Serizawa and is again the one bringing a sense of gravitas to what is an otherwise very silly movie. A standout in the first Godzilla film, having him here again feels essential. When speaking of returning characters, sadly, the same cannot be said of Sally Hawkin’s Dr. Graham. But again, it doesn’t really matter because there are more than enough (like really, a lot) of new characters who are super enjoyable.
Especially charming are Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Rick Stanton and Zhang Ziyi’s Dr. Illen Chen – as well as her twin sister, Dr. Ling Chen, because yes, the actress plays both roles in what’s a wonderful twist on teh twin fairies who accompany Mothra in Toho’s original films. Charles Dance gets delightfully campy as the villainous eco-terrorist, and thanks to the post-credits scene, we haven’t seen the last of him. Really, the only members of the cast that are a little underwhelming are the central family comprised of Chandler, Farmiga, and Bobby Brown. Not for trying on their part, however, but family melodrama is hurt the most by their roles being these archetypes and not full characters.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is very clearly a Godzilla movie made for fans by fans. That results in an uneven film that absolutely favors the spectacle of giant monster fights over nuanced and thoroughly developed characters. But honestly, when a giant monster movie looks and sounds this good – which is in part thanks to Bear McCreary’s excellent score as well – it feels silly to complain too much. When it comes to the main attraction, King of the Monsters totally delivers.