Fans of Godzilla movies–and the kaiju genre overall–don’t have a high bar of expectations when they sit down to enjoy a movie about giant monsters beating the shit out of each other. Essentially, that is exactly what we want to see: titanic creatures clobbering each other and smashing the hell out of whatever unfortunately gets in their way, usually in the form of entire cities. Of course we want to see it done well; noticing a zipper running down the back of King Ghidorah’s spine can take you out of the fantasy just as easily as the buildings looking too much like papier-mache as they crumble. We don’t need to be enlightened, but we don’t want to be insulted either.
So why has it been so hard to get it right? Toho, the studio that brought the kaiju genre to mass public consciousness, has had more than its share of clunkers over the course of the 65 years it’s been producing Godzilla movies, but generally speaking, if you do anything for more than six decades, you’re not going to do it well every time out. But America, and Hollywood to be specific, has rarely gotten it right relative to its output. The disaster that was 1998’s Godzilla has been well-documented over the past 20 years, and while director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot took several major steps in the right direction, its notable flaws have diminished its impact over the past five years.
2017’s Kong: Skull Island was a course correction in many ways, amping up the monster-on-monster action, creating a general tone of barely repressed insanity and laying the groundwork for a shared universe that actually made sense. And now comes Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third and easily best entry in Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers’ MonsterVerse, and the first Hollywood production to truly capture the awe, excitement and lunacy that made so many of us run eagerly to our TVs on Saturday mornings (or weekday afternoons) hoping to catch one of Toho’s more magical outings.
Director Michael Dougherty has stayed primarily in the horror or superhero lanes until now, writing/directing modest but effective chillers like Trick ‘R Treat and Krampus while also contributing as a screenwriter to the soon-about-to-end X-Men franchise. Dougherty has real genre cred and, as he makes more than clear in both his interviews and the work up on the screen, is an unabashed Godzilla, Toho, and kaiju fan. So was Gareth Edwards, by the way, but he was hampered by both the usual constraints of an origin story as well as his script’s structural issues.
Dougherty has dispensed with all of that. Working himself on the new movie’s script, along with Zach Shields and Max Borenstein, he’s fixed two problems that dogged the 2014 film: the lack of thrilling monster action until well into the second hour (and Edwards’ curious decision to cut away from it), and the lack of engagement with the human characters. No one is going to accuse Godzilla: King of the Monsters or its game and competent cast of creating nuanced, multi-faceted humans, but they certainly come to play and are at least a pro-active part of the action as opposed to the powerless cyphers of the previous film. As for the monsters, Dougherty brings back some of Godzilla’s greatest foes and allies and sets them at each other’s throats with a sense of scale that dwarfs just about everything you’ve seen before.
At its heart, the movie is about a broken family: scientists Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) both used to work for Monarch, the government organization tasked with tracking and, if possible, containing the spread of the ancient, giant creatures known as Titans, more of whom are emerging in the wake of Godzilla’s arrival five years earlier. A family tragedy has split them apart, with Emma continuing to work on the Orca, a device capable of communicating with Titans, while Kyle has retreated from the mission. Caught in the middle is their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who loves both but cannot bridge their emotional and philosophical chasm.
That chasm grows even wider when Emma and Madison are kidnapped by an eco-terrorist organization led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who has his own ambitions for the Russells’ Orca technology. The resulting human conflict leads to the awakening of King Ghidorah, a more fearsome and larger beast than any seen in this universe, and a creature capable of not just wiping out all human life on Earth but rallying the other monsters to its side as well. The only creature who may be able to take on Ghidorah is Godzilla himself, but the humans of Monarch are not entirely sure that he has their best interests at heart.
There’s not much in the way of shocking revelations or spoilers in the script for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, although there are a number of homages to previous Godzilla and Toho films that will delight diehard fans, especially if they experience them without advance notice. It’s no spoiler to say that most of the movie is given over to a true clash of the Titans, as Godzilla and Ghidorah go head to head while two of the most famous supporting Toho monsters, Rodan and Mothra, join the fray at various critical junctures.
The humans weave in and out of the story, zipping around the globe in planes, boats, and subs. They’re actively participating instead of just watching the world crumble around them, which makes for a faster-paced and more satisfying story. It doesn’t hurt that Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins return from the 2014 film as both connective links and avatars of scientific gravitas, while excellent comic relief is provided by Bradley Whitford as a kind of live-action Rick Sanchez.
Make no mistake, however: Dougherty is much more interested, and rightly so, in massive beasts bringing the Earth crashing down around everyone’s ears. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has plenty of money shots of pure spectacle, and while some of the action gets a little confusing on the ground (the death of one major character almost goes by before you realize it), he stages the battle royales with elegance, scope, and power. The four main monsters always feel huge and their destructive power vast, but there are several quieter moments–one between the humans and Mothra, another between a dying human and Godzilla–that hint at a supreme and unknowable intelligence at work as well.
The director also gets off a number of clever tableaux, such as Ghidorah rising from a mountaintop, the atmosphere and landscape around him almost buckling, while a solitary cross stands forlornly in the foreground: the old, true gods coming back to shove aside humanity’s younger, feebler beliefs. In keeping with the pro-nature and pro-environment message of many of the Toho films, Godzilla: King of the Monsters also expands on the idea that the Titans are here to protect Earth from us as well, although they’ll tolerate our presence if we stop trashing the place. Ghidorah, who brings extreme weather with him wherever he goes, is a walking embodiment of climate change at its worst.
Don’t think, however, that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is preachy in any way; it’s not, and enough of the exposition is delivered so quickly that you may lose track of which monster is on whose side at times. But none of that really matters: Godzilla: King of the Monsters is as enjoyable, electrifying, and satisfying a kaiju extravaganza as a fan could possibly want. The bar has been met and even exceeded, and the crown can now pass to this iteration of the king.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is out this Friday, May 31.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye