About two-thirds of the way through the 1964 movie Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, a larval Mothra convinces a bickering Godzilla and Rodan to help her to face the movie’s titular dragon. It’s a moment fans of Toho’s giant monster movies long waited for. That it exists in a movie where a princess is possessed by the spirit of a Venusian emissary and is the target of Yakuza attacks makes the monster team-up almost secondary. In contrast, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters will never once let you forget the reason you’re in the theater. Heeding the words of Dr. Serizawa, he let them fight.
One of the major complaints of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla from 2014 is how little Godzilla himself is actually on screen. By this point, the moviegoing audience wants all the monsters. Kong: Skull Island, the second in the MonsterVerse, gave us plenty in that department, but even with its infamous giant ape, there’s nothing quite as iconic as Godzilla squaring off with other well known Toho titans. If you’ve seen any of the previous 35 films with the big lizard, you know the joy comes in total destruction. And to Dougherty’s credit, he makes the apocalypse at once catastrophic and revitalizing.
In the wake of Godzilla‘s finale, which destroyed San Francisco, the Monarch organization has tracked over a dozen further titans at various research facilities across the world. Most of them are dormant, but they’ve all stirred thanks to human interference. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has developed a machine which replicates the sonic frequencies of these creatures, able to aggravate or subdue them as needed. Unfortunately, a paramilitary group led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) seeks to awaken the beasts. And if one of those beasts is the gargantuan Ghidorah, then that’s bad for everybody.
Like most of the best Godzilla movies, the humans are plentiful and spend most of the movie talking about how they can just let Godzilla do his thing. At the heart of this drama is Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), Emma’s estranged husband, and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). In order to rescue his family, Mark warily joins Monarch and their team of amazing character actors. Honestly, when you have Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch, O’Shea Jackson, and Bradley g-damn Whitford talking about how big giant monsters could help us defeat other big giant monsters, you’re getting your money’s worth.
The plight of humanity is discussed and explored from more angles than you might expect. The very real problems of our massive bootprint on the world is right at the heart of the movie. Without being too preachy about it, the movie engages with climate change, deforestation, and pollution, all of which should be on everyone’s minds all the time. Perhaps, as King of the Monsters suggests, the planet will find a way to make us slow our roll a bit.
But that’s all beside the point. How’s the monster action? Huge and central. The movie splits the difference, giving us ebbs and flows of all-out monster carnage, but the fights all build. Godzilla’s appearances all feel exciting and momentous, a counterpoint to the impending doom of Ghidorah. Rodan, the flying dinosaur titan, gets a strong showing, and the MVP might well be Mothra, who traditionally has been a benevolent monster throughout her filmic history.
And it’s that history that Dougherty reveres more than anything else. References to Toho movies of old appear throughout Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Bear McCreary’s score incorporates the themes and motifs that are so intrinsic to the monsters’ past. No matter how many times he’s changed over the years, the sound of Godzilla’s roar, when done properly, elicits chills of awe and terror. King of the Monsters does one better by making the crux of the action all about those sounds, the roar and groans that have been with Godzilla since the beginning. They are what make Godzilla what he is, and the plot reflects that nicely.
These are, at their heart, disaster movies, and I certainly understand the desire on the filmmakers’ part not to dwell too much on the reality of any city-wide leveling. It’s supposed to be a fun time at the movies first and foremost. Still, I wish there had been a bit more about the actual human toll these huge fights take. So much of the original 1954 Godzilla‘s gravitas came from using an atomic monster as an allegory for Japan’s losses from the atomic bomb. Eventually the movies became people running without seeing the aftermath. But, we get some of that in King of the Monsters, and we’re left feeling the world of the movie is forever changed hereafter, whether we see the collateral damage or not.
This is the Godzilla movie I think most of us were hoping to get. It doesn’t try for cutesy winks or tongue-in-cheek irony, nor does it pretend like it’s self-important. This is a giant monster movie in the tradition of Toho’s finest. At the end of the day, we don’t need much else.
3.5 out of 5
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Kyle Anderson is the Editor at Large for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!