Recently, I actually went to the movies twice in the same day, to see different movies. The first and better of these movies was Toy Story 4. The second and worst was Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty…but even though it was worse, it’s the one that’s more on my mind.
Just to set the ground rules here, I’m not a Godzilla-fanatic. I’ve enjoyed the odd film here or there, including the 2014 Gareth Edwards-helmed blockbuster. But I don’t have any deep, vested interest in the big fella and his monstrous co-stars. I went to see King of the Monsters because the trailer looked pretty awesome and because my friend Rod invited me to check it out with him.
If you enjoy seeing gargantuan monsters tromping around and fighting each other while urban planning takes a beating, then you have come to the right place. The movie features some genuinely spectacular sequences of Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan in all-out battle, with all the benefits that modern CGI can afford us.
However, there’s a lot more going on here than just monsters serving as ancient guardians restoring balance to the planet…there’s also a bunch of human beings running around motivating and influencing the plot. And they’re terrible. And they’re in it a lot.
This may remind you of the 2014 Godzilla and its forgettable human drama around forgettable characters, but this is much worse. Because in this case, the humans aren’t forgettable. They stick in your memory in spite of all your efforts to put them out of your mind, because of their terrible characterization, sub-par performances, illogical decisions and mountains and mountains of screen time.
The story centers around Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a Mom who lost her son against the backstory of the 2014 movie. Shes also a scientist for Monarch, the shady organization that links together the various “Monster-verse” movies. As such, she’s developed “Orca”–a means of controlling and influencing the giant “Titans” (as they are called) using sound waves. On the day that the larva of Mothra (a giant luminescent moth-creature) emerges and creates a cocoon around itself, a bunch of eco-terrorists show up and kill all of Emma’s colleagues, taking her and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) with them.
The rest of Monarch get in touch with Emma’s ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) to help track them down, which they do in Antarctica after the terrorists have finished murdering all the Monarch staff there and are in the process of waking up “Monster Zero”, aka King Ghidorah (a big, three-headed dragon-thing). Only then do we find out that Emma and Madison aren’t actually kidnapped, they’ve actually gone with the terrorists willingly. This is actually a pretty good twist, but it becomes increasingly hard to swallow as it expands upon the reasons why and shows the aftermath. See, apparently Emma believes that the only way to “cleanse” the earth of the infection that is mankind is to release the ancient titans and allow them to run around and step on people, and young Madison went along with it because she bought into the idea this would lead to some sort of planetary renewal.
Unfortunately, King Ghidorah turns out to be a different sort of monster than all the others: he’s actually an extra-terrestrial alien that upsets rather than restores the natural order, and has the advantage of being able to boss around all the other monsters…except of course for Godzilla. He does so, and all the Titans wake up and deal out global destruction. The terrorists are happy (for some reason), Emma is conflicted, and Madison finally realizes that actually this is bad because millions and millions of people are dying.
The relationship between mother and daughter thus gets strained and finally Madison fulfills her latent teen potential and fully rebels, stealing the Orca device. This might read cool on paper because one imagines Madison having to be really clever to get this priceless piece of technology out from the noses of these highly armed, highly trained militant terrorists, but no…the film has no time for that. Instead the device, which let me remind you is unique, irreplaceable and absolutely essential to the bad guy’s plans, is simply left in an unguarded room, sitting around on a table. Fortunately, it’s also pretty small–about the size of the 1/4 inch reel-to-reel tape recorders I used to use to record sound for my college movies, and thus perfectly primed to be bundled away by someone with second thoughts.
Madison does just that, and then goes to Fenway Park, where the movie has told us a bit of a way-station has been created for thousands of the displaced survivors of the disaster. When we get there, though, we catch a glimpse of a few people on a line before Madison goes to the broadcasting booth–which is fortunately fully-powered but devoid of people. She plugs in her sonic technology using an XLR cable, and uses the parks’ PA system to speak to the various Titans all over the world, to tell them to quit knocking over buildings.
Now, I used to live in New York, less than 200 miles from Boston, I never once overheard a play-by-play of the Red Sox coming from that stadium’s PA system. But fortunately, the Orca sounds travels faster than the speed of plot, and all the monsters chill out. All except for Ghidorah, who then targets Boston and Fenway Park in particular for destruction. The Curse of the Bambino is still alive and well!
Now, meanwhile, Madison’s father Mark hasn’t been doing nothing during all of this. He has been trying to urge a whole bunch of boring scientist characters (including the snarky white guy, the sage Japanese guy, the mysterious Chinese girl with a secret but unimportant twin, and the uninteresting white lady whose death is so abrupt that they had to include a graphic later to make sure you knew she’d died) that they should actually kill all these monsters, and not try to co-exist with them. But when they do just that, it’s only Godzilla that goes down, with the much more deliberately evil Ghidorah surviving. Thus the sage Japanese guy (Ken Watanabe, reappearing from the previous film), who kind of worships Godzilla (literally, at one point he says, “We must put our faith in Godzilla!”) must sacrifice himself to restore Godzilla to peak monster-hood. It’s the sort of semi-meaningful moment that the movie would like you to believe completes a powerful story arc for his character, Dr. Serizawa, but really just makes me wonder who they will get in the next movie to stage-whisper “Gojira!” in hushed, reverential tones.
Anyway, it all comes to a head, when all the main characters–Mark, Emma, Madison, Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah and of course Godzilla–all come to Boston to look for each other. Even though Fenway Park is complete rubble by then, Mark’s guys are able to find the Orca tech lying around (remember, this thing is about the size of a large briefcase), and they also find Emma. Upon seeing Emma, instead of just immediately shooting her in the head, given that she’s directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions and millions of people, they team up.
Together, they find Madison–though not before several fruitless moments are spent with Mark trying to find her by shouting her name in the midst of the monster attack, which one imagines is like trying to call someone while a volcano erupts over your heard. Nonetheless, they do, and together as a family, they repair the damaged Orca. Then Emma is able to have a heroic sacrifice as she uses it to lure Ghidorah away from her family and give Godzilla time to get his act together and defeat the three-headed goon in a cataclysmic nuclear attack. We end the movie somehow being told that we’re to feel kind of sad about Emma’s death, even though she is, as we said, responsible for the deaths of millions and millions of people.
The epilogue indicates that humanity does learn to co-exist along with these monsters, now under the control of the less antagonistic Godzilla, and that somehow their actions, with all their crazy radiation and such, leads to the renewal of biospheres and so on. So in other words, Emma was right, and Mark has learned a valuable lesson about life, which is that even if your child dies because of a giant monster attack, it’s still better to be nice to the monster in case another meaner monster comes along.
I spend all this time revisiting the plot because the easiest way to talk about the film is to let the evidence speak for itself: the movie tells a bad story buoyed by bad performances that fail to connect on almost every level. It’s hard to understand how this has happened–the cast has a good pedigree. Vera Farmiga and Sally Hawkins (the uninteresting white lady) have both been nominated for Oscars, Kyle Chandler has been nominated for Emmy’s, Millie Bobby Brown kills it on Stranger Things, Bradley Whitford (the snarky white scientist) was amazing on The West Wing, Ken Watanabe just walks around on screen with a coolness modifier of +10, Ziyi Zhang (the twin Chinese scientists) was great in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Charles Dance (the eco-terrorist) and David Strathairn (a stodgy military guy) both have a lot of good work under their belts. And yet, none of them are interesting, engaging or believable in this movie. Amusingly, Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah are all credited in the cast as Themselves, and they are far and away the most compelling characters on the screen.
I’m not saying that that doesn’t take work or talent–it certainly does and the movie is to be commended for it. People who complained about 2014’s Godzilla for keeping the monsters off the screen too much should have plenty to enjoy here. Rod, who is much more of a Godzilla follower than me, said there were a number of moments that completely thrilled his inner fan. And there was a completely amazing bit at the end where you think that somehow King Ghidorah has survived the final attack, only for the smoke to clear and you realize it’s just one of his heads in Godzilla’s mouth, before it’s completely blown away.
But, with all that, if you’re going to fill half or more of your movie with human beings running around being people, then it’s impossible to call the movie a success when all you end up with are contrived caricatures. The movie expects to be able to offer up a few tired personality quirks and to make its cast sympathetic and emotionally engaging. But each effort just leaves me cold and impatient for the film to get on with things. How many times can I watch Millie Bobby Brown reach out to touch a monster or its shell with reverential awe? How many times can I watch the villains talk about the cancer of humanity upon the earth and the need for it to be cleansed? How many times can I watch Bradley Whitford diffuse the tension with a snide joke? The answer is zero, without smirking at it all, when the treatment is so artificial and cliched, and it’s all set upon such an illogical backdrop of a plot.
In the end, the “performances” of the monsters just aren’t enough to redeem it all.