Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language

Score: 3 out of 5

Hollywood's third crack at making Godzilla film, sharing a subtitle with the Americanized re-edit of the 1954 Japanese original, is without a doubt the best one that they've ever taken at such, especially when it comes to bringing to life the "kaiju battle" style that characterized many of the sequels. It fixes some of the big problems that I and many others had with its predecessor, though it also introduces a new problem, one that perhaps showcases a willingness to hew too close to the formula of the Japanese movies. When it comes to American giant monster movies, Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is still the one to beat, but this one makes a very game attempt at homaging and Americanizing its source material while giving it the budget that Toho never could. If you're watching this movie looking for any semblance of intelligence or depth, then buddy, you're looking in the wrong place. This is, plain and simple, two hours and eleven minutes of rock-'em, knock-'em, sock-'em monster action; sure, its all-star cast may have an impeccable pedigree, but none of them, not even the ostensible protagonists and villains, are the real stars of the show here. No, this is a movie where Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan are all credited as themselves in the closing credits, and I felt that their names belonged at the top of that list. It is a movie designed for the eleven-year-old in all of us, the kids who probably owned figurines of Godzilla and staged mock monster battles with all of their other dolls and action figures. Put yourself in that place before entering the theater, letting the cheese of the human stories and the awesomeness of the monsters wash over you, and you will have a great time.

It's been five years since the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs in San Francisco at the end of the last film, and the world is still adjusting to a new status quo where giant monsters, known here as titans, are real. Dr. Mark Russell, a former scientist for the shadowy titan-tracking organization MONARCH, has since retired to become an outdoorsman in Colorado due to the grief of losing his son in San Francisco -- only to be called out of retirement. His scientist ex-wife Emma and their daughter Madison, you see, have been kidnapped by eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah, a British ex-soldier and MI6 agent who has decided that humanity is a plague upon the Earth. Using the "Orca" device that Emma and Mark created to communicate with the titans, Jonah seeks to awaken them and incite them on rampages against the world's cities. Now, Mark must lead a team of MONARCH scientists and American soldiers to stop the terrorists and the titans they have unleashed -- one of which, a three-headed dragon known as King Ghidorah, has other ideas for the world.

The plot here is purely incidental, much as it is in many of the Japanese films, and it is not entirely to the film's benefit. It is a problem that I believe stems from a fundamental misreading by the studio and the filmmakers of the 2014 film and where it went wrong, as I feel that that film's fatal flaw, contrary to popular opinion, was not an overabundance of plot at the expense of the monsters. As I noted in my review of the 2014 film, the slow buildup to the monster was clearly meant to imitate Jaws and how it spent the first two acts developing its characters before putting them up against the shark in the third act, a structure that worked beautifully in Steven Spielberg's film, and indeed, the original 1954 film similarly kept Godzilla off-screen for very long stretches. Its problem instead was that it squandered its best characters and focused its attention squarely on the dullest and least interesting person in the entire cast. Unfortunately, this film's course correction flips the script: instead of too much focus given to boring people, we instead get too little focus given to people who might have been interesting had they been given room to breathe. The relationship between Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown as Mark, Emma, and Madison is a case in point. The three of them are hinted to have a deeper and more complicated relationship than what we see on screen, from the circumstances of Mark and Emma's divorce to the growing rift between Emma and Madison thanks to a certain decision on the part of the former, and this relationship winds up becoming critical to the plot in some important ways. All three of them deliver excellent performances, the young Brown especially proving that she can play far more than just the oddball Eleven on Stranger Things as she gets one of the film's standout non-monster scenes for herself, and yet the film doesn't seem to recognize the good thing it has going for it. Once more, the human story in a Godzilla film is weak. It's weak for different reasons than it was last time, being barely existent instead of dull and plodding, but given the monster movies that have managed to mix compelling characters and stories with their awe-inspiring beasts, it's not a problem that I'm inclined to shrug off.

That said, there were times when the film came really close to convincing me to do so. I've noticed that, despite it disappointing at the box office, Rotten Tomatoes shows a wide gulf between what critics thought of it and what the moviegoers who actually did go out to see it thought. And as much as I agree with everything that critics have written, at the end of the day this movie simply had too many moments that put me on the edge of my seat for me to really care. At long last, Hollywood has finally managed to make a good Japanese-style Godzilla movie, particularly the "kaiju battle" format that most Godzilla sequels have run with in which giant monsters battle each other in city streets. Whereas the 2014 film was too dark, gritty, and "realistic" to really pull it off, here they put Michael Dougherty in the driver's seat, and the results are fantastic. The maker of Trick 'r Treat and Krampus knows a thing or two about showing monsters in all their glory, and this film's real main characters -- Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah -- all get the royal treatment. They are beautiful to look at and jaw-dropping as they fight, stomp, roar, and fire their breath weapons, with Mothra looking almost angelic in ways that you don't normally see reserved for giant insects, Rodan's sweep over a Mexican village presented as a force of nature, King Ghidorah looking like a terrifying cross between a medieval dragon and a beast from hell (when the feuding of its three heads isn't providing some fun comic relief), and last but certainly not least, the Big G himself being just as impressive as he was in those moments from the last film where we actually got to see him. The special effects are impeccable, and while the film occasionally clouds them in a bit too much darkness, Dougherty still finds ample time to present the monsters' battles and destruction with the proper sort of awe, the camera knowing what it's meant to observe and doing so lovingly. The parts of the story focused on them are presented with as much seriousness as they rightly deserve: none. Instead of the 2014 film's grim tone, this one dives head-first into the pulpier elements of the Godzilla mythos and combines them with its own Western pulp inspirations, from MONARCH getting all sorts of cool technology (including an airborne aircraft carrier and an underwater HQ) to the idea that the "titans" are the monsters of ancient mythology who have been slumbering ever since, waiting for a chance to return. This, and not the human characters, is where the attention of the filmmakers clearly lay, and this time, they did not blow it.

The Bottom Line

If you have kids, then prepare to spend the drive home from the theater listening to them scream about how this was the bestest movie ever!!!, as well as lots of very inspired play sessions. You will probably think it's kinda stupid, but you too will probably be quite impressed at the sights and sounds put on display here.

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