Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Director: Michael Dougherty

Notable Cast: Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Vera Varmiga, Bradley Whitford, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi, Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson, David Strathairn, Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah.

Despite my own extreme excitement for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the film was a wild card. Considering the fall out of audiences after Godzilla 2014 with complaints about “too many people, not enough Godzilla” and the surprise success of Kong: Skull Island, who knew how Warner and Legendary would react to the mixed messages for their follow up in their shared kaiju universe – now deemed the ‘Global Reboot’ series on Toho’s Godzilla website. Intriguingly enough, the studios tripled down on catering to the already established Godzilla fans out there. Not just by adding three more iconic kaiju to the film – Rodan, Mothra, and Monster Zero itself, King Ghidorah, but Michael Dougherty and company deliver probably the biggest and boldest love letter to the 65 years of Godzilla…for better or worse. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is massive. Incredibly massive. It’s also messy. Incredibly messy. However, for all of its flaws, King of the Monsters owns that it’s Godzilla’s Greatest Hits and punches through it with an insane amount of fan service and key moments that will have fans celebrating their own love.

One of the key aspects of being a film critic is trying to understand how much of a bias one has towards a particular piece of intellectual property. As fair talk and to give our readers context, I will admit that I am a Godzilla fanatic. I grew up with the big G, I have seen every Godzilla film a minimum of a half dozen times (some of them a couple dozen times,) and it’s a franchise that I regularly revisit in whole. For King of the Monsters, I re-watched the entire series. This latest film was an excuse to do that. Win or lose, Godzilla has always owned my heart.

This is why I can say that, in perhaps the strangest way possible, King of the Monsters makes the bold choice to be a film specifically made for people like me. This is a film made by a super fan for the super fans, casual audiences be damned. Although it spends a large part of its dialogue attempting to paint the kaiju universe through the eyes of the international super-secret organization Monarch, as introduced in the previous two films, the film is not concerned with necessarily digging too much into the motivations of either Monarch or the monsters. Does it explain why Godzilla and King Ghidorah are natural rivals? Nope. Why is Mothra an ethereal representation of Mother Earth and has an obligation and symbiotic relationship to protect it through Godzilla? If you’re a casual movie watcher, this film is not going to explain that. Super fans already understand. If anything, the film doubles down by layering in key moments from Godzilla’s past for this in an almost random fashion with tidbits of information about Ghidorah’s origins or Mothra’s life cycle as a wink-wink nod to the franchise and those fans who get it. It even goes as nuanced as iconic musical cues or pulled lines of dialogue from previous non-Global Reboot films. If anything, the film leaps from homage to homage in scene to scene, pulling ideas and key moments from the past to power the now. Eco-terrorists who steal kaiju DNA? The giant super jet? An underground city from a culture that prayed to kaiju as Gods? These are all elements from the past that King of the Monsters cobbles together to deliver the ultimate Godzilla love letter.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a relatively messy film though. The intent was definitely to make it epic and, boy, do they ever. The ensemble cast, both people and monsters, is massive. Even at two hours and some change, this film simply doesn’t have enough time to give a lot of love to all of the characters that are being fed to the audience. The narrative ends up a thin and fuzzy as it goes. The film is everywhere. It spans across the globe in minutes and it bounces between a variety of different areas to give itself a global scale. It also has an incredibly chaotic tone that’s intentional. Director Dougherty more often than not feels like he is wrangling a variety of cats – as represented as characters, plot, narrative, and tone, and this can be a problem for audiences to keep up with as it is being thrown at them.

What ends up happening is that the human characters evolve into broad stroke caricatures of ideas more than detailed characters. The kaiju, outside of Big G, are given action sequences to give them personalities. As mentioned before, the monsters have the personalities, but it’s left up to fans to fill in the blanks because we already know what personalities they have from previous films. The people on the other hand, do suffer from the thin script that’s focused on getting them from point A to point B for the kaiju focused plotting. A family dynamic is the emotional core of the film, focusing on a young girl and her relationship to her parents who both take drastic and extreme reactions in the wake of the events of the previous Godzilla film. There’s an interesting dynamic here that is paralleled through Godzilla and Ghidorah and their relationship to the Earth. It would be spoiler-y if I explain further, but there is substance underneath the script that works for those who can see through the chaos to analyze it. It certainly aids the film that everyone involved seems 1000% dedicated to the film and that holds it together in many ways. The characters might be wide emotional deconstructions of what real people might do or say, but the cast is game to sell it hard.

One of the biggest changes, outside of the sheer number of things added into the universe, that sets King of the Monsters aside from its predecessors is how Dougherty and company handle the action set pieces. One of the major complaints of Godzilla 2014 was how they handled the action, often pulling away from it to only focus on it in the final act and then presenting it with all of the stunning scope and weight of watching three giant monsters battle one another. This time around, King of the Monsters has no problem with throwing the audience right in, suspending some of the physics of things to deliver outlandish sequences of pure kaiju chaos. At one point, a monster gets dropped through the atmosphere like a giant meteor. It’s that insane. Dougherty does make some odd choices in bringing in the visuals close to the monsters instead of pulling away for those long shots to show the scope. Also, Ghidorah’s character is encapsulated by storms at any given time, so some of the sequences are marred by the amount of rain, wind, snow, and clouds that come with that choice, but the sheer amount of action that is delivered and key moments will have fans clapping. For the record, I’m so glad someone online has already GIF’d Mothra slapping Rodan in the face.

In response to other critics, yes, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a messy film. It’s chaotic, the characters are broad, and the narrative is stretched thin to encompass all of the necessary (if not limited) information it has to feed its audience to even be remotely understandable. It’s also a film that doesn’t care. It aims to appease the Godzilla fans out there, delivering on a non-stop kaiju royal rumble of epic proportions with just enough of a thematic core about protectors and the relationship between parental figures and their “world” that it can create parallels for some intriguing depth. It’s often silly, cheesy, brash, and nonsensical…in all of the best ways. It’s an 11 in terms of sheer entertainment. If you’re a Godzilla fan, you will enjoy it to some extent for what it has to offer as Godzilla’s Greatest Hits. For the superfan, it might be the film we have always wanted to make ourselves.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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