It’s fitting that the first few minutes of Godzilla: King of the Monsters are a flashback. The movie, which is a sequel to Legendary Pictures’ 2014 Godzilla, feels like a natural evolution of the previous film. In some ways, it’s a better movie—rather, a better Godzilla movie. In other ways, it’s not.
Gareth Edward’s Godzilla was proof that Hollywood no longer was confusing kaiju with dinosaurs à la Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film. This was a movie steeped in the lore of Godzilla, and perhaps fittingly for a reboot, it appeared to be heavily influenced by Toho’s 1954 original. The new Hollywood take was moody, ponderous, and for many fans, short on monster fights. Its sequel sure ain’t.
Godzilla: King of Monsters centers around a family still mourning a loss suffered several years earlier when Godzilla and the Muto ravaged San Francisco. Still dealing with grief, research scientist Mark Russel (played by Kyle Chandler) is now estranged from his scientist wife Emma Russel (Vera Farmiga) who is raising their daughter Maddie (Millie Bobby Brown). Monarch, the secret government organization from the 2014 film as well as Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, is back. The company turns to Mark for help after a group of terrorists that has kidnapped his wife and daughter then makes a move to unleash a truly deadly kaiju foe. Meanwhile, Dr. Serizawa (once again played by Ken Watanabe) urges all to put their faith in Godzilla to handle the situation.
In the original 1954 film, Godzilla was only on screen for around eight minutes. For audiences of the day, seeing the first kaiju film ever made, that must have been mind-blowing. The 2014 film also only featured around eight minutes of Godzilla, largely cloaked in murky darkness. Modern moviegoers who were eager to see more big-time Hollywood special effects in IMAX were left unsatisfied. But for Edwards, who was looking back to the 1954 original, holding back Godzilla as long as possible apparently made sense. It would’ve been nice to see what was going on, though.
King of the Monsters isn’t about holding back Godzilla, nor any of the other kaiju. It’s about getting them on screen and having them pummel each other. If you want to see giant monsters beat the tar out of each other, this is the movie for you. King of the Monsters is the most fully realized CG Godzilla film to date, and that’s including the two previous Hollywood movies and Toho’s Godzilla Resurgence, a movie that seems to delight in ditching Godzilla movie conventions in order to make a jab at bureaucratic Japanese politics.
Legendary has packed some brutal fight scenes in here, with stuff I’d never seen in a Godzilla movie. Thankfully, the kaiju battles aren’t in the dark as they sadly were in the 2014 film. King of the Monsters is lit with oranges and blues, with a clear understanding that what people want to see is giant monsters throwing down. That they most certainly do. With Michael Dougherty, a diehard Godzilla aficionado since childhood, at the helm, these fights are by a fan for fans. But it’s more than just a slugfest; there are a good number of easter eggs, such as a subtle reference to Mothra’s fairies.
Dougherty seems born to direct Godzilla movies. There is a genuine wonder and awesomeness about the kaiju that was absent in Hollywood’s previous films. He truly cares about these monsters and wants to make them as realistic as possible. I just wish I got that same feeling about the human characters, who feel more like chess pieces to move the plot around. They never feel authentic. Their motivations are either unclear, superficial, or unbelievable. The plot does include the interesting idea of flipping a protagonist into an antagonist, but that’s all it is, an interesting idea. That idea’s execution is inconceivable. In the 2014 film, the characters were, for the most part, believable and empathetic. Their motivations made sense, and even if the movie ran out of gas by the end, those motivations alone were what propelled the story.
In King of the Monsters, the actions of characters often didn’t make sense. They were propelled by the plot, instead of the other way around. There is one exception to this: Dr. Serizawa. The movie holds him in the same reverence that it does Godzilla and the other kaiju. Considering the character’s place in the Godzilla universe and Dougherty’s reverence for it, that is not surprising. Ken Watanabe, per usual, shines with grace and dignity. In any case, most people seeing this movie will view the non-kaiju scenes as filler between the monster stuff. Fair enough. In that regard, the movie does deliver. This is King of the Monsters, after all, and not King of the Believable Human Characters.
When I left the movie, I kept imagining what it would’ve been like if the human drama from the previous film had been melded with this movie’s kaiju battles. The result would have been a better movie, but that’s not what King of the Monsters is, nor where its interests lie. This is a kaiju royal rumble. It’s about iconic monsters squaring off, sizing each other up, and fighting. That is what King of the Monsters is. And in the end, that’s all it needs to be.