When you have a disaster or monster movie, one of the hardest aspects is creating a storyline with which to frame the devastation. It’s easier when you’re creating the first film in a series, or rebooting a franchise, because a good chunk of the plotting can be devoted to the origin story of the giant threat to civilization. You can even tease the arrival of the creature, building suspense and creating some cool visuals as the carnage slowly unfolds.
That’s what happened five years ago with the successful Americanized reboot of Godzilla. You had Bryan Cranston spending half the movie in an empathetic role, Ken Watanabe exploring the mythology, some pretty decent special effects with the Mutos, and then just some kick-ass action once the titular green lizard showed up, coupled with some really spectacular character design. As much as we all love the camp value of the old Japanese Kaiju movies from decades past, this version of Godzilla seemed to actually have a personality, which was in its own way new and compelling. Even the periphery story of Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson being separated and trying to survive/reunite was at least somewhat interesting because it properly fed into the main action (thought it made for an awkward shift when they became brother and sister in Avengers: Age of Ultron the next year).
This is all well and good for the first installment, but unfortunately, when you do a sequel, it becomes increasingly difficult to weave in a believable story. Because of that, no matter how good the destruction scenes and fights are, the rest of the film can leave you wanting if the story just feels like boring window dressing, which is sadly the case for the rebooted sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
After the fall of San Francisco and Las Vegas in the last movie, the U.S. government partially oversees a scientific outfit called Monarch (how I yearned for a Venture Bros. reference at some point in the film), which studies the newly discovered “Titans” like Godzilla and the Mutos at secret locations across the globe. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler, who I always mistake for Ron Livingston) developed a technology known as ORCA, a sort of harmonic frequency resonator that attempts to communicate and control the Titans. They abandoned the project after San Francisco, when they lost their young son, leading to their divorce and Emma taking custody of their remaining child, daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things). The film itself begins with the Russells searching the rubble for their dead son, then jumping ahead to a research facility where Emma is using a revamped ORCA to record and playback sounds as Mothra is born.
Here we have a glimmer of an interesting story. You have a massively-funded scientific organization (as much an impossibility in this universe as the existence of the actual Titans) working on technology to communicate with vastly superior creatures in an attempt to understand and coexist. This story has been trotted out many times in various forms (the laughable velociraptor voice box from Jurassic Park III immediately sprang to mind), but with the right touches, it could work. It could even be fascinating if you truly committed to it.
Unfortunately, much, Much, MUCH more time is spent on the divorced parent drama and the associated sadness of the dead kid. Mark hates the Titans with a fiery passion, and would love the chance to kill Godzilla, joining Monarch only for the sake of being converted from a Captain Ahab arc midway through the film. As for Emma, she decides to weaponize the ORCA device, turning it into little more than a MacGuffin, so she can release all the Titans worldwide and allow them to take over the world and purge the planet of all us dangerous polluters, with the help of an eco-terrorist played by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones), whose level of menace settles in right around “Discount Christopher Lee” territory. What should have been shunted firmly to the side ends up becoming the main story, while the mildly intriguing sci-fi aspect becomes little more than background exposition.
Because of all this random peripheral bullshit, I found myself less on the edge of my seat than sunk into it, trying not to fall asleep while waiting for the Titans to start clashing. It didn’t help that the film is so over-tinted in shades of blue that it’s hard to see anything, and the cool tones just make the theatre darker and more conducive to napping.
Since there’s nothing engaging enough for the audience to pay attention between fight scenes, you end up missing out on what could have been some pretty good human character development. On board Monarch’s many planes, helicopters, and ships (try not to think about how quickly they traverse the globe as they track Godzilla’s movements), you have an interesting cadre of characters, led by Watanabe, Thomas Middleditch, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Zhang Ziyi, and a wise-cracking Bradley Whitford. Sally Hawkins is also there, but she gets unceremoniously tossed midway through, almost like she realized she was way better than this movie and hopefully peaced out with a better offer (I know she was in the last movie, but still). The interplay of the Monarch crew, along with Mark, have enough funny moments that there were times where I wondered if this was what a good version of the 1998 Godzilla would have looked like. But then I immediately put that thought out of my head, because there’s no way these guys would do something so stupid as that movie. I mean, monsters in Madison Square Garden? Come on, no one’s that lame anymore, right?
*Fast Forward one hour*
Oh, Jesus, they’re destroying Fenway Park instead? Oh look, they have a “Green Monster,” too. Aren’t we clever? Kill me.
Yes, after Emma launches her master plan of waking up the other “Alpha” Titan in the form of Ghidora, the three-headed hydra that shoots lightning (even though the scientific idea of an “alpha male” has long been debunked), the battle shifts multiple times, from Antarctica, to a coastal town in Mexico (destroyed with the summoning of magma pterodactyl Rodan), to Boston, which burns for the final climactic battle. And yet somehow, the Patriots will STILL win the Super Bowl. Add to that the fact that we pretty much gloss over the fact that Godzilla himself seems to live in the lost city of Atlantis, and my head’s about ready to explode.
It’s a real shame, because what should be the focus of the movie, the actual monsters, are really well designed. Godzilla looks like he’s gotten a lot buffer since the last movie (where philistines dismissed him as too fat), Ghidora is every bit as menacing as he should be, and Rodan and Mothra are CGI triumphs, especially when they spread their wings. It just sucks that we barely get to spend any meaningful time with them, and again, with nearly every flame bathed in blue, we never really get a clear look at any of them. Hopefully next year when Godzilla fights the latest incarnation of King Kong, they’ll do it on Skull Island during the daytime so we can actually see some shit.
I’m grading this on a slight curve, because as I mentioned at the beginning, once you’ve moved beyond origin, it’s really hard to come up with a cogent story for movies like this, and I give the writers a modicum of credit for at least trying to come up with something outside the box. But as some of the better action movie sequels of the past year-plus have showed us (John Wick 3, Mission: Impossible 6, etc.), sometimes less is more, and it’s better to just stick to what works and keep the story just broad enough to advance proceedings and get to the next set piece. Because let’s just state it as clearly as possible right now: parent drama is most assuredly NOT the way to go moving forward. When you’ve got such good monster design, just let them rumble and we’ll pretty much enjoy it, unless you get too far into Transformers territory and all we’re doing is watching people run from explosions they’d never actually be able to survive.
Basically what I’m saying is, don’t let this become a Michael Bay thing.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite kaiju? Can we send Godzilla to take out the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins next, if nothing else than to reduce sports-based racism by about 75%? Let me know!