Godzilla: King of the Monsters
If Godzilla: King of the Monsters is any indication of a regal ideal, the key job requirements are clearly eating a lot of pies and remaining largely out of the public eye. Excepting a wave to the gathered crowds, in the vein of a punchy, severed-head-in-the-mouth, city-devastating finale. The third in Legendary’s series of monster movies – their MonsterVerse, which bears absolutely no resemblance to a very long Pam Ayres limerick – is a bust, and one might lay the blame squarely at the lack of monster mashing, or the choppy action choreography when they are on screen, but by far the worst of it is the human element.
Monster movies – movies revolving around BIG monsters, that is – have an inherent problem in that, despite what fans would have you believe to the contrary, you can’t just stage a two-hour fight in which a (mildly) good one dukes it out with a (less mildly) bad one. You have to structure them around the human element, an element which is inherently extraneous to the reason the vast majority of the audience are seeing the movie in the first place. I guess I’m biased, as I haven’t seen one yet where that combination of elements succeeds (maybe Cloverfield, but it’s formally atypical), and in a movie like King of the Monsters, where aforementioned human element is foregrounded in the most hackneyed, contrived manner, it leaves the monsters high and dry.
The thematic signifiers of the original Kaiju Godzilla are often harped on, as if this provides a get-out-of-jail free card to any further forays, and King of the Monsters duly parades such colours, taking the evergreen “humanity is a plague” conviction (most recently attributed to Thanos), and substituting enraged Gaia for an army of planetary protectors/cleansing agents.
Except… three-headed King Ghidorah is from space. And it really wants to wipe everything out. So does it represent a fallen angel? A mirror of humanity’s impulses? That’s probably where the picture’s aspirations to depth short circuit, although there were also Japanese iterations in which it was variously a genetically-engineered foe from the future and a guardian of ancient Japan, both of which might have been thematically richer.
That said, with Bradley Whitford’s not-quite conspiracy nut waxing lyrical about entrances to the Hollow Earth, and the alien presence bent on destroying the planet being unearthed/ thawed out in Antarctica, it’s quite possible Dougherty and co-screenwriter Zach Shields have been paying attention to recent trends in the conspirasphere (there’s also an unnamed underwater city in the vicinity of Bermuda…)
That script is outright appalling, though, one glimmer of inspiration aside. Which comes with the reveal that dependable paleobiologist mum Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is actually an environmental terrorist bent on wiping the planetary slate clean of human excesses. Unfortunately, since her plan inevitably involves miscalculation (the monstrous capacities and origin of Ghidorah) she backs down pretty quickly, to the point where she’s allowed a “heroic” demise (her motivation partly rests, in turn, on rather cynical 9/11-stirring survivor guilt).
Farmiga’s underdevelopment is actually the least of the film’s issues, though. Kyle Chandler as ex-husband Mark is ostensibly the movie’s male lead, and he flails about risibly, a charisma blackhole trying to hold together an already fatuous character. Chandler’s approach to the material is so heavy-handed and bludgeoning, you might have mistaken him for a Baldwin brother. The plot is short on logic anyway, but in any given situation where formerly covert monster keepers Monarch are listening to his advice, you’re left wondering “Why?”
When Sally Hawkins is rudely stomped on, your immediate response is, “Couldn’t it have been Chandler?” I can’t think of a recent movie where a lead actor has proven quite so inept at bringing anything positive to the table, and let’s face it, King of the Monsters is entirely reliant on that quality.
The third lead is ostensibly Millie Bobby Brown as their daughter Madison, cast first, causing one to suspect the role was designed around her Stranger Things cachet. Often not a good sign. She has much emoting to do – just marvel at her mechanically made-to-order gamut of responses, specialised skill set: getting teary on demand – none of it to any avail. The picture reaches its nadir as she ventures into Boston for some brainy save-the-day kid stuff and needs rescuing by Monarch and dad and mom – silly “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many” prioritising – against the countdown to Godzilla going thermonuclear (“Madison!” yells dad against the sound and fury, being as he is barely evolved).
Perhaps most indicative of the picture’s cart-before-the-horse priorities is Farmiga proudly extolling how King of the Monsters passes the Bechdel Test for the mother-daughter scenes, since that’s what’s important, rather than whether those scenes are actually of any consequence or quality (similarly, the picture diligently sprinkles multi-racial and gender roles among an entirely poorly-served cast in each and every case).
The movie’s deaths are generally ridiculous and meaningless, with moments usually eschewing pathos – because the makers have seen other, better movies, even if they’re only Armageddon – left devoid of impact. Ken Watanabe’s big scene, a decision to set off a nuke and so rouse Godzilla from his slumber, seems to affect the rest of the cast profoundly (for a minute or two anyway), but will leave everyone else shrugging.
The one trump card in all this is Charles Dance’s Colonel Jonah – initially rumoured to be an older Tom Hiddleston from Kong: Skull Island, which would have been the most interesting volte-face King of the Monsters could have made – who at least has the courage of his convictions (or rather, Vera’s convictions). I was rooting for him throughout, so it’s a small commiseration that he gets to come back next time.
The monsters? That there’s no Godzilla for first hour, in a film Dougherty described as “No holding back” creature-wise, says it all, really. When he does surface, an oxygen destroyer bomb is set off that puts him out for the count once again until the climax. And he’s fat. Who cares if he looks authentically like the Kaiju? Apart from fans (the real reason the 1998 movie is singled out for such bile). He definitely needs to get down the gym. No one likes a flabby supercreature.
I’ll give the monster work this much: they don’t look like CGI, even if they’re largely unimpressive (Ghidorah so strikingly resembles a trio of plastic dragon heads, I almost expected to see the fingers on which they’re being puppeteered straying into shot). I should stress that it’s actually thinking along the right lines to hold the monster back, to show it only sporadically and so exert maximum impact, but it’s fundamentally necessary to have an engaging human element if you go that route.
These movies are evidently proving profitable enough for Legendary, despite costing in the region of $350m each (including advertising) and tending to make in the half-billion region. So much so, they didn’t even wait to see how this one was received before getting underway with the quadrilogy capper. I hadn’t realised Godzilla vs King Kong – sorry, Godzilla vs Kong – was already in the king can, nor that – alas – the remnants of the Russell family will be returning, but I doubt Adam Wingard will furnish a more disappointing movie than Dougherty’s.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a lesser beast to the 2014 one, which I wasn’t too impressed by anyway. Remember, though, I’m the guy who thinks the Emmerich/Devlin movie is alright. But then, I’m not, as if it needs reiterating, a ’zilla fan.