In the world of long-running successful movie franchises, I think you can make a pretty strong argument for labeling the Godzilla films as some of the absolute strangest successes. I grew up watching random Godzilla flicks when they’d be on cable, not really understanding any sort of viewing order, or any real continuity going on. I was there for monster fights, while doing my best to ignore any sort of plot being handed to me by dubbed performances I, at the time, couldn’t have cared less about. And then, as I grew older, I found out that the first Godzilla film was a very highly regarded film that largely served as a meditation on the effects of nuclear weapons, making the series’ rapid decline into monster-wrestling even more perplexing. But, I’ve always had an affection for old Godzilla, and have usually been up for any attempts to bring the big guy back to the big screen, even though American creators have had a pretty shaky track record with pulling that off. Which, led us to 2014’s Godzilla, an attempt to get a new Godzilla franchise up and running in America, that attempted to do what the original film did, tell a story with some emotional weight that just so happens to have a giant lizard in it as well. And, people generally forgot about it. It has fanbase, but it generally seemed to have shown the studios that people didn’t really want a dour and brooding Godzilla movie. Which brings us to the pseudo-sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a movie that decided to go in a very different direction, for better or worse.
King of the Monsters takes place several years after Godzilla revealed himself to the world and in the process destroyed San Francisco and Las Vegas. Humanity has done their best to move on from this, while dealing with occasional issues with other giant monsters, and in the process has formed an organization known as Monarch who is set to observe and research these Titans. And this has led to a scientist, Emma Russell, creating a device known as the Orca, which can communicate and somewhat control Titans. Unfortunately, this project becomes of interest for an eco-terrorist named Alan Jonah, who abducts Russell and her daughter Madison in order to use the Orca to awaken several Titans so they can wreck havoc on the world. A group of Monarch scientists, led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, reach out to Russell’s estranged husband Mark to get his help finding Russell and the Orca. With his expertise they’re able to track the Orca to Antartica, where one of the most powerful Titans is slumbering in the ice. The Monarch team attempts to storm the facility and stop Jonah, and in the process learn that Russell is actually working with them. Apparently in the ensuing years since the attacks Las Vegas and San Francisco have experienced vast ecological growth, and she and Jonah believe that by unleashing the Titans they will reap the Earth and bring about a new ecological golden age.And they get that ball rolling by awakening Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon.
Luckily, Godzilla arrives at this point, drawn in by the power that Ghidorah shows, and begins to fight him. But, Godzilla is pretty easily defeated, and Ghidorah begins flying around the world ,causing a massive hurricane that follows in its path. The Monarch team then follow Jonah to their next location in Mexico to unleash a Titan known as Rodan. They get there too late though, and Rodan is freed from his confines, drawing the attention of Ghidorah. A massive fight breaks out, until Godzilla shows up once more and fights Ghidorah in the ocean. At which point the US military unleashes a powerful weapon called an Oxygen Destroyer, which they think will kill both Godzilla and Ghidorah. But, it just seems to kill Godzilla, making Ghidorah even more powerful as he begins awakening the rest of the Titans on his own. Because it turns out that while the Titans do appear to be part of the natural order, Ghidorah came from space, and isn’t supposed to be here. So, as he establishes himself as the alpha Titan, he begins destroying the world at an even quicker pace. The Monarch crew then realize that their only chance is to somehow revive Godzilla. So, by using a benevolent Titan known as Mothra, they’re able to locate Godzilla, and Dr. Serizawa sacrifices himself to deliver a nuclear bomb to Godzilla, which recharges and heals him. He then follows the Monarch crew to Boston, where Madison has stolen the Orca in order to draw Ghidorah to one location. The monsters then do battle with each other, Godzilla fighting Ghidorah while Mothra fights with Rodan. And, by the end it’s just down to Godzilla and Ghidorah, leading Godzilla to access some nuclear ability to unleash waves of radiation and flame that burns the flesh from Ghidorah’s body, reducing him to a husk. At which point Godzilla has become the new King of the Monsters.
Going into this film, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen that 2014 Godzilla when it came out, and while I thought it was better than most attempts to revitalize the franchise, it didn’t really leave much of an impact on me. And, the marketing of this film seemed to promise nothing but wall to wall monster fighting, seemingly featuring every single major monster in the Godzilla library, all of whom would have to be introduced and in theory dispatched by the end of the film. It seemed to be skipping a lot of steps, and looked like it would be little else but some dumb and enjoyable action. And, that’s kind of what it is. I was a little worried at first when starting this film, thinking that I had forgotten some very important information that established all of these human character and what they were doing, but it turns out that they’re for the most part all being introduced in this film, just diving into all of the human drama at the beginning of the film. And, they’re largely unimportant. The film does its best to wring some human drama from these characters, but almost none of it ends up landing, resulting in long stretches of the film that are just human characters explaining things to the audience in between monster fights, all because the monsters couldn’t explain it themselves. It basically reaches the point that the film would be demonstrably better if the humans were cut out completely and there was just occasional bits of text on the screen explaining what’s going on, which probably doesn’t make Godzilla: King of the Monsters a very good movie. It’s enjoyable, action-packed, and is a pretty fun experience to see on the big screen, but there’s not a whole lot of steak underneath all of that sizzle.
Which, is kind of the eternal struggle with these films. In my opinion the best Godzilla movies are the ones that are able to balance the human drama and in the insane spectacle. Which, is an incredibly hard thing to do. Watching the original 1954 film is a very strange experience, seeing a film about the horrors of war and the ethics of weapons of mass destruction, while also seeing a giant monster destroying a city. And, somehow, against all odds, both part of that equation work. And, for the most part, these films largely swing too far to the spectacle side. Which, I guess makes sense. The average public probably isn’t in the market for a monster movie that has more on its mind than spectacle and destruction, so it makes more sense for the studios to lean into the monster-fighting. And, that’s certainly what this film did. It did have some ideas it was playing around with, primarily the strangely defined ecological aftermath of the creatures, but most of the wind gets taken out of those sails due to use seeing the heroes gleefully detonate a nuclear weapon underneath the ocean to rescue a hero, and watching the military flippantly using the very life-threatening weapon that the entire first film revolves around with no real repercussions. Its basically just paying lip-service to the human drama side of what makes Godzilla work, and going whole-hog on the spectacle. Which, is certainly a way to go. Because when it goes for spectacle, it goes all the way, delivering one of the more insane American Kaiju films I’ve ever seen. I just can’t help but wish that there was a little more to the film, a little more on its mind.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters was written by Michael Doughterty and Zach Shields, directed by Michael Doughterty, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk