If there ever was a case to be made for visual poetry through cataclysmic on-screen destruction, Godzilla II: King of the Monsters would stand tall right beside the likes of Roland Emmerich’s 2012 and Independence Day as well as its own predecessor, 2014’s Godzilla. The trailers thus far have successfully conveyed a sense of splendor and wonder induced through heavy apocalyptic compositions and those truly come to life on the big IMAX screen as the movie’s monsters battle, laying waste to cityscapes and oceanic life around them. But even underneath the surface, there’s a lot more to dig in writer-director Michael Dougherty’s stab at the Legendary Kaiju franchise that fleshes out a world of its own as it lays the groundwork for a shared cinematic universe without distracting from the main plot.
The first element surrounding all the chaos is the human story. Time and again, human plots in disaster movies, particularly monster movies, have been criticized for being shoehorned into the narrative at the expense of learning a lot more about the monsters instead. King of the Monsters expertly weaves its human stories around the monsters and centers their motivations to revolve around the creatures and the devastation they cause. As a result, their characters blend in right with the movie’s tone and world, even if that often comes at the expense of consistency in their development.
The story centers around a family of four who lost the son as a child during Godzilla’s 2014 incident. Referred to as “San Francisco” much in the vein of The Avengers‘s “New York”, Mark and Emma Russell manage to keep their daughter Maddison safe as they lose their son Andrew. The two develop divergent outlooks over the looming monster threat and separate over irreconcilable differences. Both maintain ties to Monarch as Emma works on a device called the Orca that allows her to shoot out bioacoustical frequencies to communicate with them. This leads to the man-isn’t-meant-to-meddle-with-nature medley that spurs the film’s central conflict.
That conflict, as silly as it sounds, does have a semblance of weight and rationale to it. Essentially Emma is working with Charles Dance’s Alan Jonah, an “eco-terrorist” who has grown tired of witnessing humans lay waste to our planet and wants to unleash a mass extinction event that will wipe out these undeserving humans. Their belief is that life can and will flourish in the stead of these Titans ruling the earth, as it did back in the prehistoric days. Cave paintings point to Titans co-existing with humans in the early centuries and the time has come to repeat the cycle again.
Not everyone disagrees with the idea. Ishiro Serizawa, played with masterful restraint by Ken Watanabe, has been a proponent of Godzilla’s role in the grand scheme of things, and continues to vouch for his survival. There are debates about killing off these Titans vs saving at least some of the more benevolent ones so they can protect us from the more malicious threats. And all of this is well laid out through expository dialogue even though the characters can get a tad too talky and emotional at times. Often though, the script will lead them to make baffling choices contrary to their convictions, such as Mark holding back on attempting to kill Godzilla during his intimidation display when seconds ago he blamed him for the death of his son. This switch from wanting him dead to acknowledging his need comes at a flick and it doesn’t help that the writers have Mark acknowledge it himself.
Another interesting idea the movie flouts is the existence of these monsters as dating back to ancient times. Mike Dougherty and Max Borenstein’s script plays with this notion and uses the thought to have the humans further flesh out the monsters’ personalities, or at least give them whatever depth is possible within the realm of a monster movie. The rivalry between Godzilla and Ghidorah predates centuries with both vying for dominance, battling each other for eons to demonstrate their alpha-predator superiority. You get the sense that both have lived around for quite a while and have been each other’s sworn enemies. I could almost hear Godzilla scream and scowl “Ghidorah” upon seeing the giant three-headed dragon. Rodan appears menacing in his volcanic form while Mothra, probably the most innocent among all four species, appears majestic, her wings spanning wide open to emanate a beautiful aura that leaves theater viewers as awed as the film’s characters. For once, this leads to moments where you could relate to the stock reactions on screen.
The trouble is, a lot of this doesn’t really come across as cleanly as it could’ve, given how much the characters speak. Charles Dance seems like a lost opportunity when there’s so much subtext to the character that could’ve been mined for an interesting conflict and the filmmakers could’ve extracted a gem of a performance from Dance who seems at ease with the thinly presented material. As a human in a monster’s world, Jonah presents a legitimate challenge and point of view that, if expanded upon with the right screenplay, could make for a strong moral viewpoint. Similarly, Vera Fermiga imbues Emma with some humanity despite the inherent silliness of her actions and the rapid frequency with which her character switch sides; her expressive eyes convey a lot of pain without saying much and that’s the side that I would’ve preferred to see more. Millie Bobbie Brown makes for a competent feature film debut and she should most likely have a bright future ahead in the film-business given the ease with which she emotes. And then you have carryovers like Sally Hawkins’ Viviene Graham and newcomers like Thomas Middleditch’s Sam Coleman who, in a hilarious spillover from his role on HBO’s Silicon Valley is the “technology head” of Monarch. He does a competent job but is barely given enough to do.
Of course the argument could be made that the movie is about the monsters and rightly so. While I didn’t count the screentime in minutes, I suspect Godzilla, Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra got a lot more time on screen compared to Godzilla and his nameless M.U.T.O. counterparts in the 2014 film. And their appearance and ensuing combat is a sight to behold, from Ghidorah’s three heads with their snarling to Rodan using his wings to engage in a dogfight with missile-laded jets and Godzilla, the impact of whose appearance is amplified every time Akira Ifukube’s iconic 1954 Gojira theme plays. Kudos to Bear McCreary, for not just doing a faithful recreation but doing an overall great job with the soundtrack.
What the film does great is acknowledge the destruction left behind in the wake of the 2014 attacks, even as it brings another city to the ground. The climactic fight in Boston and the lead-up to it see several areas in ruins and they all make for some wallpaper-esque poetic visuals, even as the cinematography at times can be hard to follow. Still, Lawrence Sher delivers some damn fine shots, especially of the skirmish in Washington and Mexico with monsters flying around, airplanes shooting projectiles and utter chaos that is at times easy to follow but also tends to lose you on other occassions. Godzilla and Ghidorah preparing to square-off get probably the best visual language in the history of Godzilla films. The presence of numerous red shirts in the military can be a bit cringey as is their entire role in general but it does add some more credence and gives more eyes to view the carnage from.
As if taking a cue from John Wick, King of the Monsters does some fairly solid world-building, laying the foundation for a wealth of material that could be used in future movies. There are numerous easter-eggs teasing the existence of other monsters from Scylla to Hedorah with even Kong glimpsed at in some archive footage. The marketing was already solid with releasing information about Monarch to flesh out its timelines and the movie expands upon that with lots of detail presented through stock footage, images and clippings that paint the picture of a world that’s grown beyond the 2014 incident. A quick montage as the end-titles begin to roll along with a short little scene after the credits helps lay out some groundwork for a possible sequel.
To sum it up, I quite enjoyed Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Sure it prioritizes its monsters at the expense of human relationships but quite frankly, that’s what a lot of people wanted as an improvement from Godzilla in the first place. It’s a mix and mash-up of Kaiju elements combined with human drama replete with often ridiculous motivations that just shouldn’t mesh together at all. But it does. And it works. And it makes for a whole lot of fun and epicness and moments that induce lots of goosebumps.