King of the Monsters is throroughly-entertaining bumf.
Following on from Gareth Edwards’ stellar Godzilla (2014) was not a desirable task. When the director jumped ship to helm Rogue One, the fate of the sequel was thrown up in the air. The baton finally landed in the hands of Krampus director Michael Dougherty, a seemingly-natural choice to direct a movie about snarling monsters, but with the pressure now on to provide not only a Godzilla sequel but a ‘Monsterverse’-expanding behemoth, the odds began to stack up against King of the Monsters. Could the film live up to the Milton-esque biblical poetry of Edwards’ original, whilst populating the screen with a plethora of new kaiju monsters?
King of the Monsters is a film caught between two stools; on the one hand, the rip-roaring carnage of the monster battles and Toho-inspired lunacy of the final act feel like a film fully embracing the silliness of the premise. Yet, there is a smug self-seriousness that weighs down the narrative and detracts from the unfolding action on the screen. Tonally, the film is a mess, blending grounded family drama with a convoluted message about ecology and environmentalism, with seasonings of boyish humour like debates over whether Godzilla and a fellow kaiju Mothra ‘have a thing going on’. The story is absolute bumfluff – extremist eco-warriors try to wipe out humanity by unleashing a group of ‘Titans’ from hibernation to restore the natural order. Despite the best efforts of solid performers like Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga, the film never manages to sell the motivations of these characters, nor the various changes of heart that they experience. Chandler, whose character Mark Russell is introduced as a Godzilla hater, is given no real reason beyond pragmatism to support the kaiju in the last act; similarly, it is never really explained why Farmiga’s Emma Russell would look to the gigantic monsters that killed their child to resolve their grievances. Charles Dance, whose performance as Lannister patriarch Tywin may go down in television history as one of the best villains ever, gets to play a sneering terrorist supervillain who wouldn’t look out of place in Power Rangers. The less said about the supporting cast of one-line jokesters – boasting the likes of O’ Shea Jackson Jr. and Thomas Middleditch – the better. The only character that really shone was Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, who has the thankless task of explaining the ridiculous plot. That said, his gleefulness in committing suicide to save Godzilla is a touch peculiar; I just don’t think he’s that into you, Doctor.
However, to focus on the human storyline too heavily would be to do a great disservice to the film’s rendering of the titular kaiju and friends, who are easily the highlight of the movie. Anyone still bitter over the Big G’s lack of screen time in Edwards’ film will be thrilled by his huge presence in the sequel. The CGI used to create the Titans is nearly-infallible, with breathtakingly gorgeous shots and some delightfully-meaty battle sequences. It’s no secret that I adore Toho’s monster characters, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way that series stalwarts Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah are portrayed in the film. As I understand, motion capture was used to create some of the more expressive movements, such as Ghidorah’s duelling heads and Godzilla’s empathy with the human characters. The sense of scale is exceptional, from the unfurling of Ghidorah’s giant wings to aerial clashes between Mothra and Rodan. I’d recommend watching the film for the fight scenes alone; whilst criticism towards the relentless action has been made, it feels true to the spirit of the Toho originals, which often dispensed with human characters altogether to place Godzilla at the heart of the narrative. There are a couple of moments in the film where the lunacy slightly undermines the scene – Godzilla’s ‘super-saiyan’ forms in the final battle, for one – but placed in the context of the universe, they’re excusable. The score is generally forgettable, but the incorporation of Godzilla’s theme from the original 1954 film is inspired, building towards a climax that feels thematically satisfying.
Ultimately, King of the Monsters finds itself amidst the ranks of the typical summer blockbuster fare. If you check your brain in at the door, you’re guaranteed to have a fun couple of hours watching giant monsters punch the lights out of each other. But if you’re looking for something a bit more cerebral, or artistic, you’re unlikely to find it here. I can’t overcome a slight sense of disappointment that the film boils down to such a generic brawler – I’d love, for example, to be able to explain why I find these characters so captivating even after half a century of films. There’s enough here to please the geekier of Godzilla fans, but it feels made to order for the casual audience; and that’s a shame.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 12A.