I love Godzilla movies. Even the horrible ones. Truthfully, this is not a great series to begin with. Very few have the moving human characters or interesting plots required to ascend them to great cinema. It’s all about scope and watching cool monsters fight each other. Some are better at it than others, but you do need a fondness for such things to enjoy most of them beyond the original classic. In other words, I tend to rate them against themselves rather than against all of cinema.
Even with that generous handicap, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is bad. It is just incredibly hard to enjoy. This is a move bearing the promise not just of more Godzilla, but Godzilla joined by the iconic Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan. In the very least, it should be filled with great monster action. And once you get past the walls of annoying human noise most Godzilla movies offer, there are some fights. And within those fights there are brief snapshots of great kaiju beauty. There's a reason this film's marketing imagery and trailers have been so good. In carefully selected one-second increments this move is outstanding. But those snippets are all it can sustain.
So it's not a fun monster free-for-all. Instead, it's a movie about bad world building. We're three movies in now, and I have to admit I still don't understand this cinematic universe. It all hinges around an agency called Monarch, but from one film to the next it remains unclear if they are meant to be evil or benevolent. The same can be said for these monsters, honestly. Here Godzilla and Mothra are clearly heroic protectors of Earth. The other kaiju - don't get excited, we only get brief looks at them; none are classic callbacks that I could tell; one deserves its own damn movie which is in keeping with the rest of this film's frustrations - might be villainous or just neutral. It's hard to tell. There is so much talk about Monarch and Titans and Skull Island (they only bring up King Kong about 100 times), but we still don't have any sense of what they're building with this. Which is to say, they are averring a cinematic universe rather than letting us discover one.
But that's what we're stuck with here. The plot revolves around two factions: one led by Vera Farmiga’s Emma Russell, who wants to free monsters with a kaiju communicator gizmo so they can fight and restore balance to the world, and another led by her estranged husband, Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell, who wants to stop her and save their daughter from kaiju chaos. Between them, we spend much of the movie trudging through a human mud made of scientists, military, and mercenaries.
This is one of those films where from one moment to the next, it is often very difficult to know what is going on, much less character stakes or even locations. Events happen, but you have no clear idea what they are until a character spells it out for you immediately afterward.
King of the Monsters is not as bad as THE ‘90s movie, but its problems are reminiscent of that decade’s cinematic faults in general. It stars a lot of b-level actors bringing a-level effort to a d-level script. There are lots of eye-rolling bits of levity; it sinks time into unearned bits of tragedy; and it often feels determined to focus on exactly what we don’t want to see.
This is particularly true of Chandler’s character, a sort of everyman cipher who walks to the front of every conference he finds and demands everyone - scientist or general or whoever - listen to him because his family drama makes him the smartest guy in the room. The film’s problem is he’s right.
None of these complaints would matter if they nailed the fighting. Even if there’s not much of it, good monster action can waive away a ton of faults. This movie constantly comes close but never quite gets there. One of the big complaints about the 2014 Godzilla is how little Godzilla we see due to Gareth Edwards cutting away right when something good is about to happen. Amazingly enough, this film has the same problem, except it keeps doing it right into the big third act throwdown. There’s one shot that pans from Mothra to Rodan to Godzilla to a jeep. We follow the jeep. Stuff like that happens a lot.
People seemed to have turned on the 2014 film in general. King of the Monsters may make you appreciate the care Edwards put into staging that film in retrospect. It at least had scope and gravity. Yes, the script and characters were bland, but I wouldn’t quite call them bad. The best I can say for this one is that is has wonderful tableaus and the Rodan scene is pretty good. Also: Ghidorah’s three heads don’t appear to get along with each other. But even if you dismiss everything except the fighting, it’s still a frustrating disappointment.