Five years ago, the second American imagining of Japanese cinema icon Godzilla was met with a mixed consensus. British auteur Gareth Edwards put in every best effort to raise the radiation-fueled, formerly rubber-costumed, now 100% CGI, reptilian creature into the 21st century for the stateside crowd. Where Roland Emmerich failed to fully capture the spirit of the more original films, Edwards course-corrected, albeit leaning very heavy on the side of human-interest filler, barely leaving enough room for the titular star to reach his max potential. Now, with the prospect of franchise integration in the front passenger seat, our follow-up film effortlessly succeeds to fulfill what empty promises its predecessor managed to overlook. Godzilla: King of the Monsters puts understated horror director Michael Dougherty (Krampus, Trick ‘r’ Treat) at long last in the big budget tentpole chair, and the material truly suits him, putting his varied experience in hero-driven tales into effective use. And the best part, we’re treated to plenty of throwbacks to the classic mythology.
Of course, we must harken back to the aftermath of 2014’s Godzilla. One lone flashback sets up the stakes for our protagonist, the plucky Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga). In the wake of the monster’s rampage on San Francisco, her family was unfairly torn apart following their young son left behind as a casualty. Fast forward five years later, and Russell remains active as a paleontologist on the payroll of Monarch, the secret government agency keeping tabs on the reptile and his fellow Titans (Kong still being among that esteemed group, waiting in the wings for his anticipated undercard next year). She retained custody of their surviving kid, the independent-thinking Madison (Stranger Things favorite Millie Bobby Brown), focusing more heavily on her research, having locked onto pure sonic control toward these newly discovered titans through the development of an Orca device.
Ex-husband Mark (Game Night MVP Kyle Chandler) hasn’t dropped his overbearing resent, having gone into free agent mode, until the very moment he and his estranged meet deep in the Antarctic underground, amid a field test which indirectly causes the rude awakening of the almighty Mothra. The deck chairs are laid out firmly: congress wants to shut down Monarch, have all the titans, which also includes the crafty King Ghidorah, exterminated; a shrewd group of eco-terrorists, led by the annoying evil Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) wish to use the monsters to bring controlled global destruction; the Russells, working alongside see a new, far greener beginning for the planet if the creatures can continue to live freely.
It’s a sturdy action triangle that Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields strive to keep on firm ground, even if the dialogue around the badass fight scenes could’ve used some improved drafting. The scripting still plays well to the side of long-winded motivational speeches, but the same mentality unsurprisingly struggles to create too many memorable one-liners, to the dismay of an otherwise perfect supporting cast who still make the experience fun, and then some. We’re treated to welcome returning faces such as Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe as Monarch’s daring top researcher Serizawa. Add easily loveable newcomers Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Thomas Middleditch (the darling of Silicon Valley), Bradley Whitford (at his most closely Sorkin-esque without it being anywhere near The West Wing), and O’Shea Jackson, Jr (continuing his crusade for badassery in the shadow of his famed rapper dad), and the populous is well rounded out.
We’re talking 90s action blockbuster fun cast; like, Emmerich level fun (take that with a few grains of salt). They’re perfect for this kind of summer blockbuster, complete with the heavy ecological message. Brown and Farmiga are perhaps the key that keeps such a talented cast so grounded; the actress best known simply as Eleven is an unexpected delight, showing true poise, maturity, and confidence under pressure. Farmiga delicately keeps her nose to the grindstone; she’s perhaps the science teacher we all wanted growing up. Yet on the goal of achieving humor to break the tension, this is regrettably where they, and Dougherty fall one step behind, scooting back to square one.
King of the Monsters wants to be truly serious, like its franchise brethren; it always strived itself deeply as a continual cautionary tale of nuclear power run amok in the form of a fire-breathing monster just looking for his next meal. Much like the stirringly beautiful Shin Godzilla, the most recent homeland effort, its connection to prior folklore remains appreciatively steadfast. Any manner of in-jokes and throwbacks to past media do not appear as weirdly shoehorned in. There is a genuine purpose, a moral responsibility to maintain the truths that fans and casual viewers have taken away ever since the early Godzilla films of the late 50s/early 60s. And this is where Dougherty sees the most joy, using the foundation Edwards had built on to capture a newfound glory, while keeping a high camp factor in play, hesitant as it may to deliver a better, not-as-forced punchline.
Complete with what may be Bear McCreary’s best score for any of his films, I knew there’d be something special in store with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It’s not in all respects a perfect sequel, might not even be the most ideal. And yet, it is a step in the right direction. It has all the classic hallmarks of a traditional kaiju flick but mixed weirdly enough with the backwards byproducts of Hollywood’s worst Godzilla interpretation. With the stage now completely set for the big battle on Skull Island that will hit megaplexes this time next year (do plan on staying for the credits), our reptilian hero is now in very legitimate territory, no one can really touch him. We’d just need to ignore the flailing human characters, and then the fun part can begin. (C+)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is currently playing in most area theaters; rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language; 132 minutes.