IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 131 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mark and Emma Russell lost their son when Godzilla was in San Francisco five years ago. Now, Godzilla is but one of 17 Titans discovered, and Mark is living in the wilderness while Emma has committed herself to her work on the Orca, a bio-acoustic sound wave system that may be able to communiciate with the Titans, many of which are being held by Monarch, the organisation that Emma works for, led by Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Graham. Things go awry when eco-terrorist Jonah Alan kidnaps Emma and Madison them to help him release the monsters around the world, and, despite his hatred for Godzilla, Mark agrees to assist Monarch in their quest to locate and aid the gargantuan reptile against their mutual enemies – including a newly freed three-headed abomination hell-bent on dominating the world….
Well, if Godzilla: King Of The Monsters proves something, it’s that even loads of monster action can get a bit boring in the wrong hands, which is something I can’t really believe I’m saying. The chief criticism of the 2014 Godzilla seems to be that it didn’t feature enough Godzilla. That’s not something I really agree with. Quite a few of the very early Godzillas had their monsters take up even less of their running times. However, writer/director Gareth Edwards did have the irritating habit of cutting away just as the action was hotting up. In any case, Michael Dougherty promised that his film would fix all that and deliver loads of kaiju spectacle, showing that excess is really the best way to go. And I suppose that it does. After the first half an hour, there’s rarely more than ten minutes when a kaiju is off the screen and there are plenty of monster smack downs. However, something has gone badly wrong when the director has made the bizarre, self-defeating decision to cloak the mayhem in as much obfuscation as possible, from debris to rain to fire to a freaking blizzard and general murkiness, resulting in most of it being indistinct. It’s possible that Dougherty tried to imitate the approach taken by Guillermo Del Toro in Pacific Rim, but he lacks Del Toro’s knack for great visuals, while Del Toro had a considerably smaller budget to play with so you can forgive him a bit. It really seems like Dougherty tried to sabotage his own movie, a movie which may feature several very big monsters but which appears to actually be ashamed of them. It’s often hard to tell whether the CGI is good or not but the visual approach makes the creatures look decidedly blurry. But then this is a decidedly unappealing-looking film throughout, and also an oddly claustrophobic one despite its scale, with most of the human scenes taking place inside either an airplane or a submarine in dimly lit rooms with lots of computer screens and a blue tint.
No, Godzilla: King Of The Monsters is not good, and botches so much. When your creature thrills are seriously hampered, one looks for things like good writing and strong human characters to balance things out, but you’d be searching in vain for that kind of thing here. The script by Dougherty and Zach Shields continually riffs on familiar monster movie themes without providing much that’s fresh, rarely makes any sense, and makes several poor decisions like half way through suddenly introducing and using a super weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer [something employed, of course, in the very first 1954 Godzilla], which is then never mentioned again, while the characters are little more than generic blueprints. It’s not essential in a film where huge beasts are the real stars to have really rounded or complex characters. but it sure would have helped in this one which royally cocks up the kaiju side of things. The thing does move at a tremendous pace over its 131 minutes, but seriously lacks the fun factor. While it was probably wise not to go for the camp which many people still associate with Godzilla even though it was only really a feature of the ’60s and ’70s Toho films, there’s little point in trying to be serious and even gloomy when your movie still features a whole assortment of nonsensical details, from the way the main characters zip all over the planet in their two main vehicles, to complete ignorance of the physics of nuclear explosions, to one of the characters having their hand smashed onto by a huge stone building and then being able to use it perfectly fine afterwards. The writing is often awesomely idiotic throughout, yet mostly lacking in true imagination except for one interesting and even brave concept which I will get to in a bit.
So we begin with a flashback to 2014 and two parents losing one of their children to Godzilla, then move forward to 2019 and a family in disarray, though Emma should win some Most Irresponsible Parent award for bringing her young child to a laboratory containing a potentially dangerous creature that she’s going to test something on. In the interim, a great many new ‘Titans’ have been found [we even get a few references to King Kong], and most of them are being secretly impriosoned by Monarch, something which immediately makes them lose mystique. This is especially in the case of Mothra, who had such a beautiful mythology in the Tohos. Here she’s just another one of many monsters who once ruled the earth. She’s the second monster we see, imprisoned in her caterpillar form, though due to the shoddy digitals she actually looks less like a flesh and blood creature than she would have done if just represented by somebody in a suit. She breaks lose and kills a few people in an effective horror-tinged sequence, though this is really a betrayal of the character of Mothra, a creature who would never intentionally kill any human at all, only accidentally because of her size. Then things slow down for just a little bit as the large, unwieldy cast of characters are brought into play, including three from the previous film, but to be honest they’re all ones you’ve seen before – the father running away from his family, the precocious child, the wise-cracking technician etc – and some exist as mere story points more than anything else, others just seeming totally unnecessary. The likes of Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and Zhang Ziyi tend to be hamstrung by dialogue that’s usually terribly bland and having to do make idiotic decisions. Vera Farmiga puts her best into a stupid scene where her character explains why she’s freeing monsters, though it’s no real explanation at all considering that she’s causing mass destruction and the deaths of thousands.
So what Emma and Jonah both want is to restore some sort of balance to the earth, and soon two more monsters: Ghidorah the three headed dragon and Rodan the huge Pterodactyl, are free to wreck havoc – though by now Godzilla is a rather friendlier beast than he was in 2014, so he may just be able to help. In keeping with the pro-nature and pro-environment message of many of the Tohos, Godzilla: King of the Monsters expands on the idea that the Titans are here to protect Earth from us, though they’ll tolerate our presence if we stop trashing the place. Ghidorah, who brings storms with him wherever he goes, is a walking embodiment of climate change at its worst. In fact, these creatures are basically gods, leading to one of the film’s few strong images of Ghidorah rising from a mountaintop, the atmosphere and landscape around him almost buckling, while a solitary cross stands forlornly in the foreground: the old, true gods coming back to shove aside humanity’s younger, feebler beliefs. It’s surprising to see a mainstream blockbuster touch on faith and religious iconography, though it’s hard to respect this when the movie does so much else wrong. It doesn’t take long for the duels to begin in earnest, but what should be the highlights are hard to appreciate, with much of the choreography difficult to make out and it often seeming like we’re watching a black and white film due to the dreary gray emphasis. They tried to make the battles reasonably believable and avoid silliness, and there are a few cool moments that you can make out, but a bit when Godzilla is lifted up into the clouds by Ghidorah, but it’s only a reminder of how Pacific Rim handled such stuff better. And when some characters gaze out of a window and marvel at Mothra in her adult moth splendour yet we can barely bloody make out the creature because the sky is so yellow, one just shakes one’s head in despair. This is just bad filmmaking, plain and simple.
Outside of the fights, the monsters don’t get to do much. Rodan gets a nice bit where he flies above some buildings which crumble as he does so due to his speed much like the Rodan of the second version of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla, but surely it would have been better to have do it by flapping his wings, causing everything to rise into the air like the Rodan in the very early films. Skyscrapers certainly crumble during the lengthy final showdown, but most of the destruction of various locations by not just our four main creatures but three other, new kaiju who show up briefly a few times, is just briefly shown on news reports. Despite shots of people being evacuated so we wouldn’t have to have seen loads of folk getting killed, this film also shies away from a major kick-ass city wrecking sequence, something the Tohos often did, especially in the early days. Then again maybe it’s for the best as it would no doubt have been really murky anyway. The CGI is a mixed bag, some of it good, but much of it rarely proving that modern Hollywood special effects techniques are always much better than the older, simpler methods. Godzilla looks okay, the 2014 design essentially retained but with the dorsal plates now from the 1954 incarnation and bigger feet as well as a roar closer to his earlier ones. But he had more genuine personality in 2014. Ghidorah has more oriental dragon-type heads, the way they writhe being fun to watch, each one seeming to have a different personality, though he has shorter necks than before. Rodan resembles the 1956 version but has what looks like volcanic rock attached to his skin. Mothra probably fares worst. They’ve replicated the colour palette of the 1961 version, but making her much more closely resemble a real moth means that her former grace and beauty is lost. She gets the least screen time out of the four main monsters too, in fact she could have been removed from the film with little alteration of the script required.
There are a few nods for those familiar with the Toho films to pick up on, like Rodan bursting out of a volcano a la Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster, and one very familiar-seeming self sacrifice by one of the major characters [and now you’ve read this you’ll probably guess who it is within ten minutes of watching the film], but all they tend to do is show up the quite astounding lack of inspiration in this new movie. Even the score is decidedly lacking. Composer Bear McCreary was able to use two of the original themes, but he all but ruins them with shoddy arrangements, while, even though he’s shown elsewhere he can do much better, the rest of the film is mostly bland Remote Control kind of stuff, with not one memorable theme, unless you count the bizarre device of having voices sometimes cry out the monster’s names. I gather that critics are very divided on this one. I actually had quite high expectations of it myself, seduced by promises of a real classic Toho -style spectacle. But instead, I got an ugly, clumsy and charmless picture that’s not just a poor Godzilla film that’s closest out of all of them to the 1998 Roland Emmerich fiasco in quality despite all its sound and fury, but a pretty poor film in its own right. It makes one realise even more that its 2014 predecessor really wasn’t bad at all, certainly a much more thought through and better crafted picture that actually seemed to have a soul unlike this one. Oh well, we have Godzilla Vs Kong coming up, though with Adam Wingard in the director’s chair it could very well be even worse.