‘King of the Monsters’: Titan Duels Space Out Bloated Human Drama

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(2019—Director: Michael Dougherty)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★½
(out of 5 stars)

“You’re a monster.” 

“If I had the two of you as parents, I would’ve run away from home too.” — Chief Warrant Officer Jackson Barnes (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) to Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler)

 Potential spoilers below

When Legendary Entertainment released their American Godzilla reboot in 2014, it was something of a fresh start for the then-60 year old kaiju cinema icon. It had been 16 years since TriStar Picture’s 1998 American adaptation disappointed commercially and broke the hearts of Godzilla fans everywhere. Furthermore, parent company Toho was arriving at the end of the franchise hiatus initiated after 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. Encouraged by Legendary’s fair critical and strong commercial success, Toho would press on with 2016’s Shin Godzilla (a great film—arguably the best since the 1954 original).

Meanwhile, Legendary and distributor Warner Bros. continued fleshing out their big plan: Godzilla was the first in what they dubbed the “MonsterVerse” (MV)—another studio chasing after the popular and industry-altering Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Yet while Warner Bros. struggled (and made some progress—see here and here) getting their DC Extended Universe (DCEU) up to speed, 2014’s Godzilla gave the MonsterVerse an optimistic start that somewhat accelerated three years later with MV prequel installment Kong: Skull Island (still among my top five favorite films of 2017).

Such rising fortunes, it seems, weren’t meant to last.

If you came to Godzilla: King of the Monsters (hereafter referred to as KOTM) for the larger-than-life Titan fights and the audio and visuals accompanying them, then you came to the right auditorium. From the stomps playing over the opening studio logos, the movie prepares audiences for an experience of full-blown organized audial chaos, accompanied by the score by Bear McCreary that revitalizes several kaiju Titan themes. The visual effects crew (led by Guillaume Rocheron) succeed in bringing Titans Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Rodan (among others) to life, not to mention the makeshift boxing rings set at a secret outpost in Antarctica, Isla de Mara (off the Mexican coast), and Boston. However, if those in charge of MV Titan duels weren’t going to return to the charming wide shots of what are clearly miniature city models, then I did wish here that director Michael Dougherty had kept to the stylized piercing daybreak settings of Kong: Skull Island (my many compliments to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and d.p. Larry Fong). I get that blizzards occur in Antarctica and that abnormal storm formations follow King Ghidorah and Rodan wherever they prowl, but those still make for somewhat visually-muddled Titan bouts. Nevertheless, KOTM manages to avoid frustrating like when 2014’s Godzilla shot Titan fights early in its runtime like it was trying to ignore them or cut away from them entirely just as they approached their fever pitches of intensity.

When I saw 2015’s Krampus, director Michael Dougherty’s previous outing, I had a blast with its script, cast, and practical effects. Its take on teen-friendly Christmas horror carried both a timeless and eighties-dated charm. I struggled to find that same charm here in KOTM, and because of that, I’ve begun to question the sturdiness of the MV.

For the record, KOTM isn’t as disappointingly tired like Pacific Rim: Uprising or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or as egregiously flawed as the DCEU’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice or Justice League. Yet KOTM does commit some sins found in all four of those blockbuster stumbles: Not only did I struggle to emotionally invest in the past tragedy and current brokenness of the Russell family, but the film wasted time trying to convince me that the family was present (somewhere) in the 2014 Godzilla and was on friendly terms with Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. Watanabe, as with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, is underused yet again, and KOTM treats poorly both him and the equally-underused Sally Hawkins. No joke, Ms. Hawkins’ “crushing” death a third of the way into this movie happens in the blink of an eye and you forget minutes later that she was ever in this cinematic universe. KOTM succumbs to a franchise transgression I greatly resent—having no idea what to do with past characters other than eliminating them, then distracting audiences by introducing a whole host of forgettable ensemble players who’ll leave nary a first (or for some, only) impression in the memory. Even Millie Bobby Brown as Madison Russell, KOTM’s token youngster role, is mostly just along for the ride until the script finally has her take action, with scant real human resistance in her path. Beyond all these, one could probably find amusement by cutting together all the many shots of stationary humans gazing with great curiosity and wonder at the more exciting and heart-pumping kaiju action nearby, who themselves could’ve benefited more from their own solo outings first.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the latest demonstration of how fragile cinematic universes can turn out. Teaming up the major heroes against the major villains early is a mistake, as is treating supporting characters as mere diverse pieces in a commercial mosaic. (The MCU managed to peel away from all potential competition through the sheer power and eventual safety net of quantity, along with some genuine quality.) Why couldn’t director Michael Dougherty and the rest of Legendary help make KOTM as beautiful and technically-excellent as Kong: Skull Island? Why couldn’t KOTM feature deaths like Kong that are as creative and story-driven (however economical)? Haven’t we earned clearer Titan fights by now? All I know is that Godzilla vs. Kong comes out next March, helmed by Adam Wingard—a director who, thanks to 2016’s Blair Witch and 2017’s Death Note, effectively undid the artistic progress gained through 2011’s You’re Next and especially 2014’s The Guest.

Who knows, in this post-Endgame world, if Legendary’s MonsterVerse can still recover from this stumble? 

(Parental Note: Godzilla: King of the Monsters has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language”. It is also rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate threat, violence,” and “infrequent strong language”, and rated A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “pervasive stylized violence, some of it harsh, numerous uses of profanity, a couple of mild oaths, at least one rough and several crude terms, and an obscene gesture.”)

(Plot Summary: Five years after the events of 2014, the crypto-zoological agency Monarch continues to track and uncover larger-than-life monsters or “Titans” around the world. Monarch, however, has failed to convince the U.S. government that they can prevent a repeat of 2014. Paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), meanwhile, has completed the “ORCA”, a frequency emitter that can attract or alter Titan behavior. After she and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) use ORCA to tame a newborn larva (dubbed “Mothra”) in China, they get kidnapped by an eco-terrorist outfit led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Monarch officials Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), and Dr. Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) convince Emma’s ex-husband, Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), to help them locate and obtain ORCA, and Emma and Madison along with it. With the assistance of the semi-hidden Godzilla (motion captured by T.J. Storm), Monarch heads for Antarctica, where Jonah will likely force Emma to use ORCA to awaken a Titan (dubbed “Monster Zero”) previously off the books—a rival alpha to Godzilla. The situation changes, however, when Mark and Monarch soldiers face Jonah’s forces and Emma hints that she is working with Jonah to awaken all the Titans worldwide.)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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