The King is Alive – Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
This review will contain spoilers!
I hated the 2014 Godzilla when I saw it in theaters. I can’t even tell you why anymore. When I re-watched it in preparation for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, all my old problems (those I could remember, anyway) were still there, but I found that I had made way too big a deal out of them, and I was faced with the simple fact that it is actually a pretty great movie that I had spurned shamefully.
None of this really affected my excitement about seeing King of the Monsters, which was predicated almost entirely on the promise of more big monster battles and the fact that Michael Dougherty was in the director’s seat this time around.
Dougherty’s two previous directorial efforts produced one of my favorite modern horror films (Trick ‘R Treat) and a great Christmas monster movie (Krampus), both of which have done nothing but grow on me since I first saw them. They also both prove one thing: Dougherty knows monsters. He also loves Godzilla.
So, I was excited to see what he would do with the material, even if he was bound to be shackled by greater studio pressure than in those two films. It bears mentioning, before I dig any further into this review, that when I say that both of Dougherty’s previous features have grown on me since seeing them the first time, I mean by leaps and bounds. I left both of them low-key disappointed on my first outing, and both have since become favorites. It’s possible that King of the Monsters will undergo a similar transition.
Does that mean I’m low-key disappointed in King of the Monsters? I’m not sure. Frustrated might be the better word. I liked it, but I wasn’t able to love it as much as I wanted to, as much as I felt like I should have. It’s a lot of things, and a lot of them are a mess, but it’s also fun and frenetic and filled with monsters. There were moments that made my heart quicken, that caught my breath in my throat, that made me feel like a kid again. When remixed versions of Godzilla and Mothra’s themes swelled out from Bear McCreary’s score, my heart grew three sizes.
Unfortunately, there were also moments that made me groan and roll my eyes, and their respective proportions are altogether too balanced to say that King of the Monsters is an unqualified success. In fact, it may be the weakest installment in the MonsterVerse so far, in spite of its grand ambitions—and occasional grand successes.
The monsters themselves are mostly great. They look fantastic the majority of the time, and Dougherty and his team remember to give them weight, so that they occasionally still feel like guys in suits, even while they are layered over in so much CGI that the monster battles often look like they could have come straight out of 300.
That may sound like a criticism, but it’s not. The monster scenes, at their best, look like paintings lurching to shuddering life. They are beautiful, and any one of them could be your new computer wallpaper.
There are also some wonderful (and wonderfully pulpy) ideas at play here, even if they are often buried under drifts of haphazard plotting and awkward dialogue. The idea that the kaiju (the film calls them titans) literally bring the world to life even as they destroy it is great, and plays into the notion, advanced more tentatively in previous films, that they are ancient gods, as much akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones as they are mega-megafauna.
Oh, and there are lots of them. That line in the trailer about there being “17 and counting;” you see more than just the four headliners, though the others are all newly created for this series, rather than reimaginings of classic Toho critters. None of them have much to do, and all appear for only a matter of seconds, but they’re there.
The “hollow earth” theory from Skull Island is back with a vengeance, and with it a glimpse of an actual, if now extinct, hollow earth civilization that worships Godzilla.
If you had told me that I would get all of that in a Godzilla movie and I would still have had any room to complain, I would have slapped you, and yet here we are. It’s easy to say something like, “When it works, it works,” but even that isn’t entirely true here. That’s part of the problem. Everything that works is shot through with things that don’t, and everything that doesn’t has something that does lying just beneath or to the side of it. Hence, a movie that’s more frustrating than good or bad.
The humans here are both better and worse than previous outings. The old chestnut is that nobody watches a Godzilla movie for the humans, which is true enough, but nonetheless, you’re going to end up spending a lot of time with them, so you shouldn’t mind that time too much.
Like just about everything else in King of the Monsters, the humans here are a mixed bag. Vera Farmiga’s character is almost the villain that this movie needs, but the plot seems to veer aside just as it should be getting good. Meanwhile, her ex-husband, played by Kyle Chandler, is not only frustratingly generic, he’s also largely unnecessary, in spite of getting the lion’s share of the screen time.
When your most compelling set of human agents are the outsized comic book characters who populate Kong: Skull Island, I dunno, that may be something to be concerned about, is all I’m saying.
Maybe the biggest problem with the humans of King of the Monsters is that their very front-and-center-ness undercuts one of the core themes of the series thus far. While most people (myself included) had some problems with the human players in the 2014 Godzilla, one of the things that movie got very right was that they were literally beneath the notice of the kaiju. Their attempts to thwart and fight the giant beasts were worse than ineffectual: they actually created the only conflicts that the humans could solve.
Here, the titans actually pay attention to the humans. Partly, this is because of the MacGuffin invented by Vera Farmiga’s character that allows her to… communicate may be too strong a word, but at least draw the notice of the giants. Which is fine, if they only paid attention when it was in play, but that’s not the case. Godzilla and Blandy McLeadinguy share a moment; Ghidora frequently chases individual people. It robs the monsters of something of their grandeur, sure, but it also damages one of the core themes that the MonsterVerse has built so far. This movie’s human scale is at its best when Ken Watanabe’s character is testifying before Congress that we will be Godzilla’s pets. When it forgets that, it does a disservice to the viewer and its own themes.
Of course, King of the Monsters is full of missteps and disservices. The vast majority of the humor falls even flatter than you might imagine from that, “Oh my God” “-zilla” scene in the trailer. But for every misstep, there’s also something that I loved. Not just the monster fights, but also smaller things. “Monster Zero,” the nod to the Mothra twins, the fact that Ghidora is still from space, Ghidora’s heads not getting along. And it’s hard to argue with the absolute beauty of some of the monster battles. The result is a mess of interweaving frustrations and charms. Which will win out in the long run is tough to say.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.