Over the past 65 years, there have been 35 films featuring Godzilla (or 38 if you’re being technical), a super-powered reptilian giant and titan of the ancient world, born against his will from the complicit ashes of mankind’s mistakes. He’s a rightful god among monsters and humans alike, and such is the case in this latest outing of the world’s favorite monster, in which there might be some serious competition for the title of “King.”
Directed by Michael Dougherty and released as part of Legendary’s “Monsterverse,” the film is a sequel to Gareth Edwards’ successful — yet somewhat polarizing — reboot released in 2014. Since the events of the first film, many enormous creatures classified as “Titans” have been emerging all over the globe, several of which will be recognizable to die-hard fans of the Godzilla mythology.
The Titans are overseen by members of Monarch, an agency concerned with containing and studying them. Scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are suddenly kidnapped, along with a device capable of communicating with the Titans, and it’s up to Emma’s ex-husband/former Monarch scientist Mark (Kyle Chandler) to once again unite with the agency and reclaim the balance of nature.
At this point, it feels necessary to explain that I’m in a somewhat unique position of having watched every Godzilla film over the past 5 months in preparation for this summer blockbuster. It’s a very surreal feeling to have reached such a destination, and I also feel as though it gives me something of an advantage when looking at this through a franchise-based lens.
Nearly every chapter of this long, confusing book has argued, in one way or another, that mankind is on its way out. They’re a disease, an infection that can only be cured by the interference of superior beings. It’s a fascinating premise in a vacuum, one that asks questions and posits challenges that sci-fi was practically invented to raise. The problem that I sadly kept running into was that humanity would always win by the end, occasionally sharing the victory with a monster or two, and it felt like the stories were too limited by their structure to truly deliver on their premises.
To be fair, those movies were produced with a budget and frequency that couldn’t necessarily allow for much in the way of narrative experimentation, so the ones that ended up being my favorites were the ones that would somehow approach the story from a different tonal or thematic angle. If there’s one thing I can say for Dougherty’s film, it’s that it does understand this irony and takes it in a direction that innovates conceptually, if not practically.
As promised, we learn in the opening scenes of the film that Earth is in severe danger of extinction due to human activity. Ranging from overpopulation to pollution to war, nearly everything we’ve done has had a harmful effect on nature’s ability to further sustain life. There may be hope, however, in the Titans, who have cultivated growth and prosperity among the wreckage of their destruction with their excess radiation. They’re forces of nature capable of wiping the terrestrial slate clean of contamination, and as we learned in 2014, coexistence with the titans may be within our grasp.
Emma intends to release the titans peacefully, but her plan is disrupted when the three-headed Monster Zero, better known as Ghidorah, reacts with hostility and wanton destruction upon release, and it’s up to Godzilla and the forces of humanity to take down this threat before it’s too late. The film, for all of its glaring storytelling flaws, is an aspirational one, and its thematic conclusion is relevant in a way that I truly wasn’t expecting: it’s about eliminating toxicity.
Ghidorah has been Godzilla’s arch-nemesis for over half a century, but I had trouble understanding why until now. He’s a three-headed dragon with two tails and electric powers, so he’s obviously threatening and well-designed, but this film finally showed me what makes Ghidorah truly evil: He’s a bully. In nearly every appearance, Ghidorah can be seen raising hell like no other, and although many of these instances have involved alien mind control, there’s a definite sense that he’s doing it for fun.
The same is true with this film, in which Ghidorah is notably portrayed as being harmfully magnetic to other titans, particularly Rodan the volcanic Pteranodon. In that sense, the film can be seen as a story about cutting out negative voices and influences in hopes of developing a better future writ large as an exciting, VFX-driven, action-packed monster movie, and it allows for a handful of moments that truly make King of the Monsters worthwhile overall.
The film is dragged down by its unfortunate sense of pacing, making it feel somewhat jumbled and haphazard, if not just too long. The impressive supporting cast, consisting of Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, Zhang Ziyi, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, and Charles Dance, among others, likely won’t deliver the plethora of memorable characters you might’ve been hoping to see. Thankfully, Ken Watanabe shines once again as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, named for both the director of Godzilla’s 1954 debut film and the fictional doctor who begrudgingly killed the beast.
The action is entertaining and visually impressive in spite of being rather tiresome, and devoted fans are sure to delight in certain callbacks and references to previous films. Many of the specific choices made are sure to confuse viewers and fall apart under scrutiny, and how much that affects one’s enjoyment of the film will likely depend on their insistence to look for such inconsistencies. The film is a dramatically mixed bag in almost every way, as evidenced by the critical reaction, which can be described as…mixed at best (for now, at least). I’m of the opinion that enough tantalizing material is offered to justify the experience of seeking this out, although my fingers are patiently crossed in the hopes that Legendary’s Monsterverse might have greater things on the horizon.