One goes to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters for the enormous supernatural creatures destroying cities and each other, not for nuanced drama and characterizations. Which is good, because there’s considerable large-scale carnage—and very little logic—to be found in this big, dumb and only sporadically fun monster mash.
Set five years after Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Navy snooze thankfully nowhere in sight), Michael Dougherty’s sequel finds Monarch, an organization dedicated to locating and handling the world’s growing population of “titans,” sparring with Congress over how best to handle the threat posed by the beasts. This argument is more or less irrelevant, however, because Monarch’s Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has developed a device known as the “Orca” which allows communication with titans via their “biofrequency.” With her ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) having abandoned his Monarch work—and their marriage—following the death of their son during Godzilla’s previous San Francisco rampage, Emma uses the Orca to awaken Mothra. And, with her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) by her side, she then makes friends with the giant insect.
No sooner has that victory taken place than Emma and Madison are kidnapped by Colonel Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), a rogue “eco-terrorist” who covets the Orca. This forces Mark to rejoin Monarch, an outfit populated by a host of recognizable faces—Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch, O’Shea Jackson, David Strathairn, Zhang Ziyi and Bradley Whitford—whose function is to either spout exposition or to make funny quips about the ongoing madness. They all have names, I’m sure, but if you’ve seen prior disaster films such as Independence Day, The Core or The Day After Tomorrow, you’ll immediately recognize them as familiar clichés designed to serve basic narrative functions, including saying things like “We must have faith in Godzilla!” and routinely staring upwards, in awe or terror, at the giants among them.
Although trying to destroy these monsters would seem to be the sound national/global course, Godzilla: King of the Monsters can only exist if its CGI stars stick around long enough to tussle. Thus, Dougherty and Zach Shields’ script bends over backwards to depict a world in which presumably smart people—in particular, Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa—believe that some titans are our enemies but others are our friends; and furthermore, that they’re part of the natural order of things, and thus vital to the planet's continued well-being. Obviously, this is all just an excuse to posit Godzilla as both fearsome and on our side, thus giving us a rooting interest when his fellow titans awaken and not all of them are cool with sharing space with humanity.
Coexistence with gargantuan monsters is an outright absurd idea. Yet it pales in comparison to Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ early twist: Emma hasn’t been kidnapped by Jonah, but is actually working with him. Emma believes that summoning these fiends from their ancient slumber will help restore the Earth, which is suffering from overpopulation, climate change and war (we’re “the infection”), and which will again find balance after the titans destroy civilization and foliage sprouts up in its ruined cities’ place. The fact that Emma doesn’t view this as, you know, THE APOCALYPSE, and instead thinks mankind will survive and then rebuild, is so insane that it throws the entire film off its axis, sending it into a tailspin of unintentional humor from which it can’t recover—at least, during its human-driven sequences, which are marked by laugh-out-loud moments like Strathairn’s admiral discussing “disasters we don’t even have names for yet.”
Child-in-peril scenarios and noble martyrdom inevitably play a role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Along the way, many fine actors are forced to navigate nonsensical situations and spout cornball dialogue. Chandler is such an innately charming and stout screen presence that he emerges from the fray unscathed. Most of his castmates aren’t as lucky, reduced to chatting and cracking wise in dull-looking control rooms. By hewing so closely to hackneyed conventions, the film provides no reason to pay attention to these sections, which—making matters worse—take up an inordinate amount of the 132-minute feature.
By the time Emma tells her unhappy daughter, “I know things haven’t gone exactly as planned”—arguably the understatement of the cinematic century—Godzilla: King of the Monsters has gone off the rails; except, that is, for its signature clashes, most of which involve Godzilla as well as King Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon that Emma foolishly blasts out of Antarctic ice (at Outpost 32, a sly nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing), and quickly becomes the puppetmaster of its fellow titans.
Ghidorah is a fearsome winged hydra, and its face-offs with Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan are suitably colossal. Dougherty stages his battles with a thunderous viciousness that’s tailor-made for a big screen (and Dolby sound system). He also regularly seizes opportunities to linger on images of mythic grandeur and beauty, be it King Ghidorah perched in triumph on a flaming volcano beneath a smoky burning-red sky, or Godzilla plummeting through a canopy of clouds as a flaming fireball.
In those Heavy Metal-esque tableaus, Godzilla: King of the Monsters conveys a sense of awesome magnificence and terror. There’s a slightly cartoonish quality to its CGI monster designs—especially during its finale, when Godzilla, ‘roided up on atomic energy, comes a bit too close to resembling his Saturday Morning Cartoon counterpart. Still, Dougherty doesn’t skimp on the destructive spectacle. Boston (and Fenway Park) figure prominently in the last showdown between Godzilla and King Ghidorah, which is to say, Boston (and Fenway Park) are eradicated with a conclusiveness that will make Yankees fans cheer.
That Madison watches the beginning of that ballpark bout from the press box is a cheeky gag that makes one wish Godzilla: King of the Monsters had a better sense of humor about its fantasticality (where is the Green Monster joke?!). As it stands, it’s the sort of serviceable summer extravaganza that will play best if viewed with friends who aren’t averse to chuckling at its more outlandish ticks. Moreover, it suggests that, for his forthcoming fight with the king of the jungle (via 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong), Godzilla would be wise to eliminate his human co-stars from the get-go, the better to seize the spotlight for himself.