If you’re a monster movie fan, you’re probably used to the story getting a bit dull when the creatures exit the frame. Lucky for us, kaiju fan or not, Godzilla: King of the Monsters manages to keep a large ensemble of human characters fun and engaging, while using visual effects to characterize Godzilla and the other monsters. After years of fans watching men flail around in rubber suits, Hollywood has realized the appeal of giant monsters having personalities and becoming their own characters too.
Not only that, but their scale on screen is absolutely massive. It’s been too long since a monster movie could be described as “larger than life” and Godzilla: King of the Monsters achieves those skyscraper heights and action beats in equal scale. This is the kind of movie where you can make that extra effort to get out and see it on the biggest, loudest most colorful screen you can. Seeing this in IMAX or Dolby Vision is absolutely worth the journey.
Action movies are often seen differently because there is so much more to balance. These ambitious cinematic projects all owe a great deal to the historic Ishiro Honda film, Gojira (1954) as a genre of effects and spectacle was born out of tragic metaphor, and a giant lizard of all things would become one of the most iconic characters in the world alongside Mickey Mouse. But in the years since, filmmakers realized action and effects films have so much more to accomplish that sacrifices have to be made, and that is usually the narrative quality, most exemplified in films like Independence Day, Transformers and Avatar. However, viewers perception of what an effects-driven genre film should be has fundamentally changed. Sci-Fi soaps have captured the zeitgeist of the 2010s, not just for how they look, but how they make people feel. This evolution has changed everything about the standards of action and effects films. We look to recent game changers like Avengers and the Planet of the Apes remakes as films with strong characters and themes in their core, but enveloped by marvelous effects. King Cesar and the Hulk come to mind when comparing the visual presence of the creatures of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, where the awe-inspiring scale and effects have found a place for marriage with characterization in a legacy franchise that so often struggled to do so, at least in whatever way it can. While it isn’t a revolutionary film, it finds some otherworldly balance to these modern tools of moviemaking. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a culmination of the decade’s best sci fi action films. It’s the Godzilla franchise, evolved into something new.
Horror filmmaker Michael Dougherty (Trick R Treat, Krampus) takes up the mantle to direct the sequel to Warner’s Monsterverse films (Godzilla and Kong Skull Island) and he had his work cut out for him. The franchise has been in a dire need of this evolution, not just from a very clear audience demand for action, but in competent storytelling.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters follow a small family drama enveloped by the new age of monsters. Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga are Mark and Emma Russell, who suffered great losses once Godzilla returned to the world. As time passes, these characters grieve in different ways as Mark allows his anger to fester and Emma obsesses over her work with Monarch, the monster analyzing organization introduced in the previous film, leaving their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) caught in limbo between the two.
Returning characters include Monarch’s Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), this time offering more than just science exposition. Watanabe’s Serizawa, acting as the guiding hand to Mark, is given more opportunity to emote as the spiritual crux of the narrative. Joining up with Serizawa, Mark embarks on a rescue mission to find Emma and Madison, who were kidnapped by an eco-terrorist played by Charles Dance, when it’s discovered that Emma holds a working machine that can awaken the Titans. The rescue mission grows more perilous with the introduction of a hydra bigger and stronger than Godzilla himself, King Ghidorah.
The story that carries the audience through the plot is Mark on a world trotting rescue mission, and despite a couple of convoluted twists that may be a bit jarring for some, they’re played in a way that allows Farmiga and Brown to demonstrate more range with a family drama instead of simply being held hostage. It does this without making the story too complex or detached from emotional stakes for the audience to care in between action scenes.
The ensemble cast of Monarch newcomers keep the pace brisk through the story and science jargon. Thomas Middleditch, Bradley Whitford, Ziyi Zhang, Aisha Hinds and O’shea Jackson Jr. bring comic relief in a genuine way that keeps them all likable. Whitford in particular embraces with full force that he’s in a Godzilla movie and chews scenery in a way that does not feel obligatory or over edited. While these characters haven’t been completely fleshed out, it’s a far cry from the paper thin caricatures 20 years ago in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla with Sony, and the time spent with them and the creatures is more valuable to the film than the gritty details of the plot. It’s the somber family that carries us from set piece to set piece, but these supporting characters keep things fun until we get to the films main characters: the monsters.
To credit the monsters as characters is to give credit to VFX Production Supervisor, Guillaume Rocheron (known for Life of Pi) and the six visual effects studios with hundreds of digital artists who worked on the film to bring the Titans to life. Godzilla and King Ghidorah’s battles are composed with stunning scale, animation and choreography, and to see Rodan and Mothra thrown into the mix is ultimately icing on the cake, with just enough noteworthy action to themselves that they may come away as the holders of fan favorite moments.
Godzilla fans can relax, the monsters don’t get cut away from this time. The animation is creative and colorful like a comic book splash page with close ups and wide shots to make them more lively than just effects achievements. Additionally, the monsters don’t disappear when the action is over, as they sort of have character moments of their own as Ghidorah’s threat grows larger, and Godzilla has to put the hustle in to achieve his victory. Fans will also appreciate the experience in sound mixing, with classic musical cues and creature sound designs throwing back to the old films of the franchise, bringing them to life ever so slightly more than they would be with the visuals alone.
Following the first act, the film’s pace is too quick to concern itself with giving more exposition than necessary. Unfortunately this too is true in sequences where the film would have benefitted from stopping the breathless pace to slow for a moment, and hang on a shot before moving on to the next thing. This could have created a bit of emotional tension that was instead passed by. This results in a couple character moments that were too quick to realize before they were over that could have given the audience some pause for drama.
While the monsters are framed in a computer with glorious IMAX wide shots, a lot of camerawork on the ground with human characters was too handheld to the degree that it began to show some flashbacks to Bourne Identity in brief instances, and the dissonance between camera styles is glaring when it cuts back to the stable and clean digital shots of Godzilla and friends.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an action film with the satisfaction of knowing exactly what its creators and its fans want it to be. Dougherty makes a Godzilla film that the fans always wanted: it keeps things moving, keeping the characters fun with approachable story, and monster filled spectacle is always around the corner.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters will be released in the United States in the theaters in 2D, 3D, Reel3D, IMAX and Dolby Cinema Friday May 31, 2019.