Five years after Godzilla levelled half of San Francisco, an outpost for the global monster-monitoring outfit Monarch is attacked: scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped along with Russell’s experimental device ORCA, which can communicate and even influence giant monsters. Once this technology is used to awaken the three-headed dragon Ghidorah, it sparks off a rise of multiple ‘titans’ including the volcanic bird Rodan, the giant insect Mothra, and the return of Godzilla himself.
2014’s giant monster remake Godzilla finally gets a sequel in writer/director Michael Dougherty’s explosive, messy, and effects-driven effort Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Proving that sometimes more actually is more, this faulty and uneven effort does benefit from the increase in named ‘kaiju’ in terms of upping the action and improving the all-round quality of the film. It still does not manage to successfully develop a must-see Summer blockbuster, but it does at least pick up the pace compared to Gareth Edward’s pedestrian effort.
The same overall problems do remain, however, just in a less egregious fashion. Writing remains the Achilles’ heel, with a relatively silly narrative and risible dialogue interspersed between the expected scenes of giant monster mayhem. Doherty and Zach Shields’ script shifts the human focus from a separated family to… well, okay, to another separated family, but this time they do come better framed within an ensemble of Monarch employees racing to contain a worldwide crisis. Plotwise the film takes itself much less seriously than its predecessor, which is a positive sign, but what replaces that dour take is still badly under-motivated and poorly expressed. Charles Dance plays a radical eco-terrorist: we know this because other characters say he is, and he is given no real opportunity to demonstrate this or suitably reveal his motives. Other characters are saddled with the most stereotypical of motivations. A surprise development at the end of the first act sees one trusted character be revealed as a villain. This is a bold move, but said character spends the first 30 minutes as an audience viewpoint and as a result the twist jars badly. Other characters undertake numerous actions to push the plot forward, but there is no internal motivation that quite makes sense.
The result is a terribly messy story that collapses under scrutiny. There should be a question asked every time a scene of the human characters is written: is this scene more interesting than Godzilla punching a giant monster in the face? If the answer is no, then the scene really should be replaced with a better one – or it needs to step out of the way and let the monster fight take control. There are essentially three key scenes of monsters fighting here, which feels like more than in the 2014 Godzilla – indeed more than several other Godzilla films – yet the paucity of strong human scenes still make it feel like are being under-served.
Fans of giant monster movies will not have come to the film for a human story, of course. Dougherty frames his four monster protagonists brilliantly. Tom Woodruff’s revised designs for each are exceptionally good, and they are captured in atmospheric and dynamic ways from scene to scene. The sound design is particularly brilliant, returning Godzilla’s own roars to the 1954 Japanese original and finding freshened takes on Rodan, Ghidorah, and Mothra at the same time. The film’s main draws – devastating battles between the titans – are distinctive and inventive. Dougherty has been given an almost unfair task in taking the deliberately fantastical and ridiculous set of monster characters, and giving them a sense of realism and weight. I am a particularly keen fan of Mothra, and had doubted any director’s ability to faithfully reconcile the more serious tone of American cinema with a rainbow-coloured giant moth, but Dougherty marvellously succeeds. The same goes with Ghidorah: a three-headed gold alien dragon that has never seemed so terrifying. They are shot from dynamic, powerful angles, and they have a palpable weight and power to them.
Here is the ultimate problem though, and it addresses not only the bad screenplay but also the film’s commercially disappointing performance in cinemas: all three American attempts to develop a Godzilla feature (1998, 2014, and 2019) have suffered from being mainstream ‘tentpole’ releases. Godzilla is iconic, but the character’s actual films are comparatively niche. They do boast a healthy, dedicated audience of fans in Japan, but they have never been what Hollywood professionals describe as ‘four-quadrant’ hits – films appealing to men and women both young and old. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) was only the 44th highest grossing film of its year in Japan. Shin Godzilla (2016) fared much better, only topped by the anime Your Name and grossing US$75 million in Japanese cinemas, but it was also the first home-grown Godzilla picture in 12 years and brought a resonant element of social satire with it.
Conversely, the American Godzilla films are bankrolled to the equivalent of Star Wars and The Avengers. They are structured and financed as four-quadrant blockbusters, yet broadly retain the same style and narrative conventions of their Japanese cousins. They are being advertised as big screen epics without epic storylines. Put simply: Warner Bros is spending too much money. Budgeted at $60 million, and the story quirks and weak characters would not stand out so visibly. Budgeted at three times that, and the studio is simply setting itself up for failure. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is definitely a disappointing film, but it is not about what was delivered, which is simply a particularly pretty replica of a Japanese equivalent, but what the studio continues to promise. What is needed here is not reproduction, but rather reinvention: an American-targeted Godzilla film rebuilt from the ground up.