Previously on the Godzilla and Friends Cinematic Universe: in 2014’s Godzilla reboot we got seven (7) minutes of Our Hero and two hours of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch hiding and moping. 2017 brought us Kong: Skull Island, the big ape’s cheesy yet awesome comeback that delivered on its promises of MONSTERS FIGHT! though any human actors who didn’t arrive tongue-in-cheek looked pretty lost.
Now it’s sort of a trilogy as Legendary Pictures perpetuates the American GFCU with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Hopefully this time Toho isn’t ashamed of what our country has done to its favorite native superlizard.
Short version for the unfamiliar: After the calamities of Godzilla, including some light devastation in San Francisco, humanity is very aware monsters are real — nicknamed “Titans” because saying “monsters” too many times in a row gets old. Multiple governments have coordinated a worldwide task force to keep an eye on them, though monster-handling theories abound. Kyle Chandler (a veteran of Peter Jackson’s King Kong) and Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel, The Conjuring) are Drs. Mark and Emma Russell, divorced scientists with very different ideas on the Monster Problem. Emma thinks she’s invented a sonic-based mind-control mechanism that could pacify the colossi and prevent zillions in further infrastructural damage. Mark, resigned to self-imposed exile, would rather see an extinction-minded solution. Trapped between them is their daughter Madison, played by Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown, typecast as Girl Who Screams Much but who at least gets to be coherent for a change.
While monitoring continues on the seventeen (or more) known beasts around the globe, a new threat emerges from mankind itself: Charles Dance, a.k.a. Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones (not to mention Alien³ and The Last Action Hero0. As militia leader Jonah Alan, he means to save a ravaged Earth from what he perceives as its worst enemy, that aforementioned mankind. Genocides, environmental disasters, war, famine, and the other usual Horsemen must be stopped, and all those kaiju are the closest thing he’s got to the Thanos Solution. Wipe out billions, and the survivors will build again and thrive in peace. Also in deep-seated, perpetual grief, but also in peace. Unless all the best possible rebuilders are among the billions who perish, but never mind that. Or decency or morality or practicality or the thousands of fictional post-apocalypses from which precisely zero long-term happy endings have ever emerged.
Alan’s plan naturally centers on reviving the biggest monster they can find, that classic baddie men call Ghidorah, a three-headed flying dragon with, like, energy-fed laser-breath an’ stuff. He’s in Antarctica on ice, just waiting to be chiseled out and unleashed upon a defenseless world.
Well, not totally defenseless. Enter Godzilla, Mother Earth’s number one leg-breaker. And this time he’s not alone.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Reprising their roles from Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla are Ken Watanabe as Asian Raymond Burr but 1000 times better, Sally Hawkins as his nearly silent partner, and David Strathairn as the stock grizzled military commander. New kaijuologists include TV’s Bradley Whitford as a jokey IT guy who’s sometimes more funny than annoying, Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as the film’s official ambassador to Chinese theaters, and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) as this spare white guy who’s just kind of there.
Soldiers of note include Aisha Hinds (9-1-1, Dollhouse) as the ranking officer in the field and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) as the grunt tasked with paraphrasing exposition we just heard from the scientists but in fewer, snarkier words.
Bit parts go to CCH Pounder excelling in her 17,006th ace performance as Fierce Black Woman in Charge; Terminator 2‘s Joe Morton as another scientist whose barely mentioned identity is a surprising Easter egg for Skull Island fans; and Randy Havens, the science teacher from Stranger Things, as a scientist instead of a teacher. King of the Monsters may be the first film of its kind in which the scientists threaten to outnumber the soldiers.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? As with Godzilla’s 1954 debut and some of his sequels, the central topic is Man’s atrocities wrought upon the Earth. Director/co-writer Mike Dougherty (whose best screenplay credit to date is X2: X-Men United) revitalizes the metaphorical inversion seen in some of those later flicks: while Godzilla was borne of unchecked nuclear testing and built for revenge upon those who tampered in God’s domain, here he’s nature’s avatar, ready-made leader among his peers, and super-sized savior of life on Earth itself, including the lives of all mankind. Sure, he’s massive and graceless and doesn’t navigate narrow streets well and sucks at communicating his intentions, but when our bombs and missiles are too small to scratch the largest evildoers, Godzilla is our most powerful personification of Life Will Find a Way.
Other Morals of the Story include but aren’t limited to:
- Being torn between feuding, divorced parents is no fun, and confusing when neither of them is without sin
- Governments cooperating with each other is a good thing
- Nothing unites disparate factions like a mutual enemy
- Sacrifice can be an act of heroism, and it can be an act of final redemption
- Don’t judge a book by its cover, even if that cover is an ugly, scaly hide
…and then there’s MONSTERS FIgHT! Old-school monster-movie fans will cheer not just Godzilla versus Ghidorah, but returning players Mothra and Rodan, the giant moth and the fiery pteranodon each joining the fray in top form. Short screen time is not a problem this time around. The multiple duels among the fearsome foursome are long and epic and melodramatic and extremely expensive-looking — everything a big-screen beastly battle should be, everything the six-year-old in you could possibly want from a Godzilla film. And then it triples that expectation.
As a value-added bonus, any viewers holding grudges against Boston (e.g., good and decent folk who can’t stand the Patriots) may cheer a little too heartily at the Final Boss battle that savagely levels Fenway Park and much of the city’s downtown, which might actually be more drivable if it were reduced to a plateau of flaming wreckage that would negate its ancient, unnavigable street layout.
Nitpicking? Godzilla’s new face looks funny to me.
Also, after the monsters retreat to their corners in Act Two, there’s a stretch of too-much-humans that drags a little. The score by Bear McCreary, generally spot-on throughout for a big ol’ monster movie, tries to compensate with otherworldly choirs meant to sustain the feels while everyone’s recovering from their exhaustion — battle-worn characters and overloaded viewers — but it was the only point when I found myself getting restless.
I also snickered at one utterance of “Long live the king” that didn’t quite evince its fist-pumping intention. Not every one-liner nails it, but the keeper-to-clunker ratio is narrowly above average for a summer action blockbuster extravaganza. Very narrowly.
Seriously, though, that’s all I got here. The geek contract says I’m supposed to complain about one-dimensional human parts and wasted acting talents, but on my first showing it honestly wasn’t noticeable. It’s as if Dougherty and co-writers Max Borenstein (Skull Island) and Zach Shields looked at each other and wondered, what if the humans weren’t cheesy or painful to watch? What if we brought in actors who gave it their all and treated the End of the World as serious business, but without sounding wooden or embarrassingly hysterical about it? It might not be Oscar material, but what if we tried harder than any Transformers writer ever has? Wouldn’t that be a mind-blowing change of pace?
So what’s to like? This was, I think, my fourth time paying a few bucks extra to see a movie at our local Dolby Cinema at AMC, which ostensibly features better picture clarity than standard screens (I’m not convinced my aging eyes can see a difference) and absolutely features better sound quality, bigger and brasher speakers, and de facto Sensurround environmental immersion whose rumbling sensations are three parts alarming earthquake and one part strong-handed armchair massage. My hearing isn’t great and I’m forbidden from turning our TV up to max volume at home, so amped-up sound systems totally satisfy an unmet craving for me.
The Dolby Cinema upgrade previously turned the gunfights of such films as The Peadator and John Wick: Chapter 3 into triple-decibel theme-park experiences. Here, you’re dropped squarely into the eye of an Armageddon storm and invited to feel civilization falling apart all around you — skyscrapers collapsing, utility lines exploding, puemmelings from fists the size of small moons, all augmented with the extreme bass and subwooofery you’d imagine should ensue. It’s terrifying to imagine in reality and I’m by no means an advocate for literal destruction, but as body-rocking escapism goes, Dolby Cinemas are more affordable and slightly less physically painful than today’s amusement parks and their escalating prices.
In short, it was the perfect way to experience King of the Monsters. As if MONSTERS FIGHT! weren’t enough, Dougherty and cinematographer Lawrence Sher conjure moments of hazy grace with each oversize combatant, like a BBC Planet Earth expedition capturing them in their native habitats and showing us that even nature’s cruelest predators have an innate beauty if seen in a certain light and set against the right backdrop. Mothra’s time-honored transformation from basic mega-caterpillar stage glows in front of a cascading waterfall as her wings burst forth in neon colors. Rodan finds majesty launching from within a volcano, another of nature’s angriest cleansers, horrifying and yet reminding us that fire is painful yet often pretty.
And then there’s Godzilla himself, monsterdom’s deposed ruler looking to take back his crown from the pretender Ghidorah, the sinister outsider muscling in on his turf. Though early scenes see Our Hero sticking to the shadows and saving his energy for later, eventually things go over-the-top as Titan tensions escalate and it’s time for him to come out of his corner swinging with that heavy tail, that energized spine, and of course the most aggressive breath in all of cinema. If monster movies are your thing, then the light-show spectacles of King of the Monsters will be your jam.
If you’re like my son and you’ve seen all the other dozens of Toho monster films ever (I’ve never gone quite that far), you’ll also be bowled over by so, so, SO many references, characters, inventions, musical cues, monster forms, and other familiar bits packed in here from past films, even a few from the much later placeholders that never saw U.S. theaters. If you’re into drinking games, one can be made from counting the brand new monsters as they peer in from the sidelines, and the number of times you spot foreshadowing for next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong, which has already wrapped principal production and hopefully won’t be sabotaged by this film’s not-too-massive performance so far at the U.S. box office.
Meanwhile, it’s also refreshing to see humans holding their own against all those towering, crowd-pleasing visual effects. Kyle Chandler summons forth his old Friday Night Lights inspirational-speech skills. Ken Watanabe, who nets one of the movie’s most moving moments, proves the Raymond Burr job doesn’t have to be thankless or empty. In a film where not a single woman settles for a Concerned Wife role, Vera Farmiga carries some of the heaviest weight and surprising us at multiple turns.
It’s neither Shakespeare nor Sharknado, but King of the Monsters confidently treads the higher end of the vast ground between the extremes, satisfying the kid within without expecting the adult to rationalize its entirety with a dismissive “guilty pleasure” label. I mean, it’s that too, but it’s not just that for a change. It’s quite possibly the greatest American giant-monster movie of all time. Someday I’ll have to see if that declaration holds up when the volume is dialed down from 13 to 3.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Godzilla: King of the Monsters end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…Charles Dance and his militia visit an underground dealer of stuff and get themselves a bargain on a sweet, unique collectible: Ghidorah’s last surviving severed head.
Based on what he’s seen from the old Godzilla Expanded Universe as opposed to this Godzilla New Canon, it’s my son’s firm hunch this development implies the filmmakers are paving the way to introducing another concept from the past: Mecha-King Ghidorah! Time will tell, assuming enough people see this one in theaters and all sequel plans stay on track. I mean, who doesn’t want to see Mecha-King Ghidorah? People who are killjoys, that’s who.