It is, as they say, good to be king, but uneasy lies the scaly, airliner-sized head that wears the crown. As Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens, our hero is in a sulky, self-imposed exile that may be penance for laying waste to San Francisco five years earlier, or possibly a strategic conserving of energy for an upcoming title fight. Strip away the movie’s layers of convoluted plot, and what’s left is a parable about a wizened old fighter trying to maintain supremacy—a narrative with a niftily self-reflexive dimension. Just as Godzilla desires benevolent dominion over the Earth, so too would Warner Bros. like to dominate the box office, as well as follow Marvel’s lead in establishing one of those franchise fictional universes that are all the rage these days. Godzilla may be big and green, but his parent studio doesn’t see him as the Hulk; between this $200 million sequel and next spring’s Godzilla vs. Kong, it’s banking on him being their Iron Man.
As an act of pure brand extension, King of the Monsters ticks off all the required boxes, introducing more than enough new characters and complications to bridge the gap between Gareth Edwards’s recent reboot and any forthcoming sequels—which is another way of saying it’s overloaded and exhausting, especially compared to its predecessor. Writing for The Dissolve, David Ehrlich described Edwards’s Godzilla as the first “post-human blockbuster,” referring to the relative insignificance of its various interpersonal dramas, all of which were gradually dwarfed—if not obliterated—by the mid-film arrival of the title character. “The lack of a compelling homo sapien protagonist helps clarify the film’s true trajectory,” wrote Ehrlich. “This is a story about exposing the myopia of the human perspective and then humiliating our inherently egocentric POV.”
It was a shrewd read. And certainly, matters of perspective and POV were woven into Edwards’s aesthetic, with its strategies of vast, spectacular establishing shots and consistently sly play with scale (qualities that also figured into his Star Wars anthology film, Rogue One). A half-decade before Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout HALO jump, Edwards’s Godzilla exploited the vertiginous possibilities of an action sequence at 30,000 feet while also mixing in a sense of severe, painterly beauty.
King of the Monsters is directed by Mike Dougherty, who has credits on several superhero movies (X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns) and directed the holiday horror comedy Krampus. He cribs liberally from Edwards’s stylistic playbook, but insists on making action heroes and noble martyrs of its ensemble. What was previously an effective and even elegant interplay between form and content gets trampled—and flattened—into something at once more conventional and haphazard. It’s a massive but uninspiring movie, a visual effects extravaganza without a vision.
King of the Monsters opens with a scene that so directly recalls the prologue of Batman v Superman that it’s not out of bounds to call it a rip-off (notwithstanding the fact that there are much, much better movies to rip off). We flash back to 2014, when Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) searches futilely for his young son Andrew amid the devastation of Godzilla’s battle with the MUTOs; it’s a bad sign that it took me a minute to remember whether Mark and his scientist wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) were actually forgettable returning characters (they’re not). In Batman v Superman, hinging Bruce Wayne’s beef with Supes on the collateral damage to Metropolis was risky, but at least the characters could support such a weighty vendetta. Here, the idea that a good-looking dad has unfinished business with a 40-story lizard is just too silly to recover from, no matter how much Chandler tries to sell the idea that he’s moving toward a personal showdown.
In short order, Mark is absorbed into a task force comprising members of the previous movie’s cast, including Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe as scientists sympathetic to Godzilla’s cause. The latter is used, for the second movie in a row, as a piece of human shorthand for the material’s Japanese roots. “Let them fight,” whispered Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa at the climax of Godzilla, a highly memeable moment that also implicitly condoned the monster’s destructive tendencies. He’s spouting much the same shtick this time, patiently explaining to Mark—there is a lot of explaining in this movie—that Godzilla may be our best hope against a menagerie of similarly humongous monsters awakened from hibernation around the world by a specialized sonar signal being broadcast by Emma across the globe. The subtext of this development seems to be that starting a podcast can have catastrophic consequences.
Emma’s transformation from a grieving mother into a Thanos-like supervillain, preaching the doctrine of principled mass-destruction—with Ghidorah being unleashed as a cure for civilization’s wasteful practices—could make for a complex narrative hook, with climate change as the millennial variation on the original Godzilla movie’s atomic-age paranoia. But in truth, it’s all just a pretense for the hot titan-on-titan action promised by the film’s title. With this in mind, the gang’s all here, and their CGI incarnations pay homage to earlier, lower-fi versions: Mothra, Rodan, and the evil King Ghidorah (a.k.a. “Monster Zero,” a.k.a. my favorite MF Doom side project) have been designed to split the difference between state-of-the-art and old-school throwback.
At times, the creatures are quite beautiful—especially the glowing, translucent Mothra, who was always the most lyrical of Toho’s creations. But for every striking widescreen composition or effectively abstract image—a massive shadow passing over a Mexican town has the ominousness of No Country for Old Men by way of Jaws—there’s a five-minute pileup of quick-cut, incomprehensible ground-level carnage. That Dougherty and his effects team are trying something deliberate by staging nearly every scene in the midst of either swirling snow or pounding rainfall is obvious, but it undermines any truly satisfying fight choreography. There are more memorable punch-kick combos between the cardboard kaijus in “Intergalactic.”
In the end, ugliness is not the cardinal sin of King of the Monsters so much as cheesiness. In theory, the mid-film reveal of an undersea kingdom where Godzilla goes to recharge his batteries in between battles should have a mythic, Lovecraftian grandeur, and it does, but it’s infiltrated by a gesture of absurd sentimentality engineered to give a human character a tragic send-off: The model is clearly Leonard Nimoy’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, except that this particular figure doesn’t have the gravitas of Mr. Spock.
The mix of pushy pathos, strained familial drama (Mark and Emma are also fighting for the affections of their daughter, played by Millie Bobby Brown), and Roland Emmerich–style zaniness (Bradley Whitford is uncommonly obnoxious as a pathological one-liner machine) starts out queasy and grows positively toxic. It’s one thing for a blockbuster to skillfully mix tones; it’s another when nobody involved in the production seems to have been decisive about managing the overall vibe. Compare this draggy, lumbering movie to the most recent Japanese Godzilla movie—2016’s springy, satirically agile Shin Godzilla, which skewers bureaucratic buffoonery while alluding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster—and it’s no contest. It’s the difference between a movie that knows how to tell a joke and one that keeps ending up as its own punch line.