“We opened Pandora’s Box… and there’s no closing it now.”
The year 2019 was an important one for blockbuster movies. Marvel and Disney presented us with on of the most ambitious film events of all time with Avengers: Endgame, a film which brought a full decade of film making to a giant, conclusive battle to end the arcing Infinity Saga, and set the tone for the next few years of output. Marvel and Disney would dominate the box office in 2019, with 6 of the top 10 biggest box office hits coming from Disney, and 3 of those being part of the MCU.
What was missing from the top 10 was Godzilla: King Of The Monsters. Today, I am here to tell you why that was the biggest shame of 2019’s film landscape.
Warner Bros. And Legendary Pictures presented the third film in the MonsterVerse to mixed critical and audience reception. It’s clear that they tried to build on the feedback they received for their previous instalments (Godzilla in 2014 and Kong: Skull Island in 2017), but it’s also clear that they recognised the cult status that one line from Godzilla had achieved. Even if you’ve never seen that film, there’s a strong possibility that you have seen memes that made use of Ken Watanabe delivering the immortal line “Let them fight”. In Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, Legendary Pictures let them fight.
5 years after the events of Godzilla, we meet Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, The Departed), a paleo-biologist studying the titan Mothra for Monarch, the organisation in charge of containing and monitoring the newly-discovered Titans. Mothra hatches into her larval form, allowing Russell to use a device called the Orca, which she designed with her estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler, First Man), to communicate with her. The event is interrupted by former SAS colonel and current eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance, Game Of Thrones); who kidnaps Russell and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things) and intends to use her and the Orca to release the other titans that Monarch has contained for study. This action results in direct conflict with Monarch, the US military… and Godzilla himself.
I talked in my reviews of the previous films about them being ensemble movies, and this approach certainly still applies to King Of The Monsters; with one key difference – the humans aren’t the only characters adopting the ensemble style. Some of the most popular stalwart monsters from the Godzilla film series make their first western appearances in this film; namely Mothra, Rhodan and King Ghidora*, who serves as the main villain of the piece. Once again, the design team has done incredible work with the monster designs; and each creature manages to both honour the original designs from the old movies, while also being realistic enough to sell their intrinsic natures. The prime example is Mothra; who not only gets to showcase the diversity of the design team’s imagination by moving from a larval stage to an adult state; but also presents a softer side of the titan’s designs; allowing the addition of a sense of beauty amongst the hulking monstrosities that have made up the series so far. Speaking of monstrosities; Ghidora represents in that department what could be the strongest way of the series so far; his three dragon-like heads, dual rattle tails and enormous wings reminiscent of the mythical Hydra of Greek legend; a comparison which leads to one of the more visually disgusting (yet effective) moments of the film when he is forced to regrow one of his heads after an encounter with Godzilla.
There is a use of elements which works well to drive home the differences between these monsters which is particularly effective for distinction as well. While Godzilla’s reliance on radiation for sustenance and assault is utilised heavily as a plot point once again, the other three make use of different elemental natures; Mothra demonstrates a reliance on water, with her larval form cocooning beneath a waterfall for her transformation; Rhodan is first seen bursting from containment from within an active volcano, and drags flames from the edges of his bird-like wings; and King Ghidora relies on electricity for his powered assaults, as he is able to blast lightning from all 3 heads, as well as generating storms as he flies. One scene of an over-charged Ghidora blasting lighting from all three heads and from the peaks of his wings at once is a particularly effective and striking visual, and is also just incredibly cool. The building of the elemental natures into the monster’s designs, akin to the visual effect when Godzilla is preparing his blast attack, allows not only for cool and interesting character animation; but also creates an interesting variety of offensive movements from each creature, beyond what you would expect from their basic animalistic design, and is well used for some of the more shocking moments during the action.
Of course, a full cast of humans is on deck for this film as well, but it must be said that the performances vary a little more in quality than in previous instalments; but not necessarily due to the fault of the actors. The creative team have taken steps to address the equality issue from the previous two films, as Farmiga and Brown get more than their fair share of screen time and are very much central to the plot. Brown does well in her big-screen debut, which gives her the opportunity to portray a much more balanced set of emotions than Stranger Things does. Farmiga and Brown do feature in one of the scenes which highlights the main issue with this film; as in a time-sensitive moment that also featuring Dance, a little too long is spent on the back-and-forth, trying to establish a moment of moral conflict for one of the characters involved, at a moment where it has been made clear that there is not time for that kind of debate. This happens more than once; a key scene featuring the returning Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) falls prey to the same desire to create increased dramatic tension, though the scenario which Dr. Serizawa finds himself in does make that particular moment a little more forgivable than the one mentioned before.
Watanabe delivers a very similar performance to his turn in Godzilla, but his role has changed somewhat. Monarch now finds itself with a much greater range of equipment, backed partially by the US military in a more symbiotic relationship, and much of his conflict is actually driven by Dr. Mark Russell. Chandler is great in this role, simultaneously juggling the emotions of a concerned father who is desperately searching for a kidnapped daughter, with his scientific instincts as an animal behavioural specialist. While he supports Serizawa’s calls to assist Godzilla as he moves to fight the other titans, he is frustrated at Monarch’s inability to identify where his wife and daughter are so that they may launch a rescue; and the need to head off the titans as they continue to escape containment and bring ever-growing levels of chaos drives the majority of the human element in the film. The Monarch team also drive the majority of the humour this time; with Bradley Whitford (Get Out) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) providing a lot of humour in their roles within Monarch (Whitford as a half-drunk scientist, akin to Rick from Rick & Morty; Middleditch as the annoying director of technology). The military personnel get their time to shine too, with Aisha Hinds (Underground) putting in a strong showing as Colonel Diane Foster, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) standing out from the troops as CWO Jackson Barnes. As you can imagine from the fact this is a list of stand-out actors and not a full list of everyone with a notable role, the cast is so enormous that some people do disappear into the mix, and those who are not lost in the action are hurt by a sheer lack of screen time due to sharing with such a large cast of other actors and the titans. This film also would have been well served with a stronger script and a tighter story to drive the human characters, and the lack of it hurts the film from a narrative stand-point; but this film is certainly not setting out to accomplish the same goals as its predecessors, and it’s clear that the human element just is not as important here.
Where Gareth Edwards was coy with the monster fights in Godzilla, the same can not be said for Michael Dougherty’s approach to Godzilla: King Of The Monsters. By this point we must presume that were moving full steam ahead with the plans for Godzilla vs. Kong, and this is the appetiser for that piece. While the human element is still present, it’s now framed much differently and seen as the reaction to what is happening between the Titans; be it during attempts to evacuate cities where Titan activity is expected, or assessing the damage caused as they chase them across the US. The fights themselves, as noted, are spectacular and occur much more frequently than in the previous films; but it’s only when we reach the final fight that a partial removal of the human element allows these clashes to properly shine. Setting the confrontation in Boston also helps, as the impact of the showdown is definitely stronger when we’re allowed to see these creatures colliding with high-rise buildings, rather than the previous fights in locales such as the Antarctic, or in the sea off the coast of South America. It’s hard to tell whether a more cautious approach would have served the film better or not; having Godzilla and Ghidora clash multiple times certainly helps to establish Ghidora as a credible threat, but may damage the overall sense of urgency to their confrontations as the film continues. That is not to take away from the spectacle involved; as discussed at the start of this review, the effects team have as good a job with the movement of each titan as they have with the aesthetic designs, and the fights are all great to watch. Some of the long-shots of the titans at the end of a sequence are stunning as well; one particular shot of Ghidora standing dominant at the top of a mountain was an astonishing achievement by the effects team.
Godzilla: King Of The Monsters is not quite cut from the same cloth as Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island, but that doesn’t make it worth any less of your time. Arguably, the greater focus on action between the titans themselves makes this outing more like the original Japanese Godzilla films than any of the other western attempts at a true Kaiju film, and King Of The Monsters deserves to be looked at through that frame. Also; if you want a film to switch your brain off and enjoy with a bucket of popcorn and a couple of drinks of an evening; you could do much worse than watching these gargantuan behemoths throw down.
Let them fight.
*Did you know that King Ghidora official origin is that he’s actually an alien intent on terraforming the Earth in his image? Not mentioned in this movie at all. The original Kaiju films are class.