Say what you will of kaiju films, the best of them thrill and excite. They combine large-scale, city-devastating set pieces with the ground-level desperation of humanity to prevail in the face of armageddon.
The original Godzilla has in its cast of characters a dramatic blend of family dynamics, romantic interest, and political proliferation. The blend may appear shallow in terms of character depth, but it provides us with names and relationships that we want to see succeed.
All the while, it provides the enigma of Godzilla, this animal giant with uncertain goals. For 1954, Godzilla is an imposing presence. His destruction is depicted with a dynamic use of camera tricks, modern editing, and aesthetically-pleasing miniatures.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters wants you to believe it has the same power, the same dynamic sensibility, and the same lovable characters. But it simply doesn’t.
The film’s characters are its most glaring flaw. Out of the large ensemble, three of them have a motivation, which they share: family. Kind of. Until one of them mostly ignores this motivation in order to move the plot forward, then remembers the motivation near the climax when the plot requires an emotional beat.
These three are our protagonists. At least, they’re the closest we get to characters worth rooting for. Yet I still found myself hoping for the three-headed golden dragon King Ghidorah to prevail and eat all of these people for Sunday brunch. I’m no nihilist; I am just working with what I’m given.
The remainder of the characters are casting window dressing. Oh, there’s Sally Hawkins! There’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.! And Bradley Whitford! Thomas Middleditch!
Oh wait…what are their characters’ names?
Limp-wristed screenwriting tries to give these actors some quips to make them more likeable. But poorly-written jokes only make it more evident how unimportant the characters are to screenwriters Zach Shields and Michael Dougherty (who also directs).
Let me provide an example. There is a point in the film where a character meets an untimely demise (it’s a Godzilla movie. What did you expect?). The moment itself is so unceremonious that you could blink and miss it, then wonder where that one character (what was the name, again?) disappeared to.
The other characters, too, care little about this person’s death. Other than one distraught look in the moment, no one ever mentions this person again. It’s almost as if…huh, the characters are so bland and uninteresting that their deaths aren’t even worth the time of day. Not a great place to be when this ensemble is who we follow for two-plus hours of dour, gray action.
“So Dougherty doesn’t care for his characters,” I hear you say. “It’s a monster movie; who cares?” Even if it’s a flawed premise, you have a point. The main attraction in these films are not human in nature. It is the giant monsters clashing and tearing down cities that really draws a crowd.
Unfortunately, this too is a pitiful imitation of what the screenwriters assume we want to see. This story of the kaiju is contrived and uninteresting. It is a battle for dominance among the monsters, who have been sprung from underground hibernation by eco-terrorists. Godzilla and Ghidorah clash, and whoever wins owns the fealty of the likes of Rodan and Mothra. And that’s about all there is to it.
The film will make reference to past films in the Godzilla series; an attempt to earn the respect of die-hard fans, perhaps. But it all comes off as soulless as the cast of characters. The plot is a boring dirge of dialogue which describes the movement of the monsters so that a new action set piece can commence. There is no intrigue or suspense, merely pretense.
And the action set pieces? At their best, they are coherent. But they are bland and color-less, and they are cut apart to within an inch of their lives. There is something inherently majestic about Godzilla, like the brachiosaurus walking across frame in Jurassic Park, yet also something intimidating, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. But here he is a lumbering mass of meat shooting beams of energy out of its mouth. Again, there’s no heart in it.
The closest thing we get to a kaiju character model that moves with energy and presents a true sense of reason and feeling is Mothra, a character who is sidelined for most of the action.
I am reminded of Shin Godzilla, another modern take on the fabled character. In that film, Godzilla is presented, at least initially, as an aimless path of destruction. But this is because a) he’s an animal and b) the people witnessing Godzilla do not know any better. In King of the Monsters, characters assume the benevolence of Godzilla, almost as if they’ve watched the old Toho films. But nothing in the film presents Godzilla as benevolent. If anything, he is indifferent.
Shin Godzilla also makes use of its characters (mostly toward a satirical end rather than an emotional one, but that serves the film well), and it contains coherent and well-lit action sequences. I hate to harp on the comparison, but that film struck a much better tone and crafted a more enjoyable experience. It should have put this gritty, ash-covered American incarnation of the character to bed.
Instead, we will next watch a mindless Godzilla face off against a mindless Kong as empty, one-dimensional humans try to do something of use to the plot. If it’s anything like this film, it will probably take place by a volcano, because we need that ash to dilute the color palette to a brownish-gray. That’s what the people want.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters: D+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)