Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot left moviegoers – and some, if not most, film critics – generally unfulfilled, wanting more, more action, more Godzilla, and more kaiju-on-kaiju action. Godzilla spent the majority of his self-titled movie’s running time offscreen, shown only tangentially as an after-thought. When he finally made it onscreen, it was only briefly. Even the climactic battle between Godzilla and a no-name pair of generic monsters disappointed. Godzilla won the crown and/or title, of course, but humanity lost, not just lives or property, but the claim of ownership or dominion over the earth and its resources (cue environmental/climate change theme). In the 2014 reboot, San Francisco took the brunt of Godzilla’s final battle. By the end, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands had lost their lives, but in the Godzilla-verse, the human cost of kaiju battles usually gets sidestepped or simply ignored. The spectacle is all, the human drama, if any, always a distant second. That, of course, isn’t so much a criticism as it is an observation that also holds true for the direct sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, an unapologetically dazzling 200-million-dollar love letter to the Godzilla-verse that’s spanned more than sixty years (and counting).
Set five years after the Battle of San Francisco, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delays the reintroduction of its titular character for the better part of an hour, instead focusing on the literal and figurative fallout from the Battle of San Francisco through the experience of a fractured family, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), a man who justifiably blames Godzilla for the loss of his preteen son and naturally hates any all kaiju (called “titans” here), Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), his ex-wife and scientist who’s dedicated the last half-decade to developing the ORCA, a bio-acoustics machine, that she hopes can control kaiju, and Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the daughter caught between her well-intentioned, if blinkered, parents. While Mark retreats to wildlife photography to salve his troubled psyche, Emma works for Monarch, the once super-secret, international agency tasked with tracking the titans (among other things), and apparently home schools Madison.
The first attempt to use the ORCA on a dormant titan (Mothra, in larval form), an eco-terrorist group bent on releasing the titans to “cleanse” the world (of humanity), attacks the Monarch facility, kidnapping Emma and Madison, leaving Mothra to escape and find a spot under a waterfall where it can build a cocoon and prepare for its inevitable transformation into its final form. That massively winged-form emits a veritable light show when it flies, but it barely compares to Godzilla’s other competitors for “king of the monsters,” Rodan, a volcano-based flying reptile, and King Ghidorah, a three-headed, winged dragon that can create massive electrical storms. Each new kaiju, based on classic, decades-old counterparts, has been smartly, deftly reimagined for savvy 21st-century audiences and digital cinemas. Godzilla gets a few tweaks from its last incarnation, but he’s still the heavy-set, lumbering, gigantic lizard with atomic breath that entranced and enthralled moviegoers more than six decades ago and through every incarnation, even the campy, cartoony ones, since.
While the human drama barely passes the plausibility test – Emma’s motivations in particular make little sense if examined too closely (likewise with the eco-terrorists and their ill-thought out plan or shallow, surface-deep ideology) – at least it improves, however modestly, on what we saw, heard, and experienced the last time around. There, the family was fractured not by trauma but by geographical distance. Here, it’s both. It helps that Chandler, Farmiga, and Brown make for a more compelling family than their predecessors. That’s less to do with their respective characters than their talents and dedication to elevating typically underwritten, under-motivated roles. The script co-written by director Michael Dougherty (Krampus, Trick ‘r’ Treat) puts a huge amount of pressure and stress on Brown and her character to carry the big emotional beats, often to a fault: She’s forced into passive reaction shot after passive reaction shot until she’s finally stirred from inaction in the Boston-set third act.
Of course, moviegoers don’t decide to sit through a movie called Godzilla: King of the Monsters for the human drama, however well or poorly realized on screen. It’s the kaiju-on-kaiju action that sets expectations and sells tickets and on that front, Godzilla: King of the Monsters doesn’t disappoint. Each new encounter includes just enough variation, whether it’s the location, the weather, or the kaiju themselves, to recommend them apart from the story or human characters around them, though fair warning: Whether due to budget considerations or artistic choices, the kaiju-on-kaiju battles unfold at night, usually with rain, snow, or dust obscuring some of the action. What we do get, though, more than makes up for the shortage of the title character from his self-titled Godzilla reboot five years ago. And with Godzilla vs. Kong already set for next spring, the MonsterVerse seems set for another strong, crowd-pleasing entry.