Ghidorah done right
The stage is set. In work that Legendary Pictures started in 2014, we are getting a “Toho Avengers” style follow up to the 2014 Godzilla launch film. Gone is Gareth Edwards (good director with monsters, bad director with people), whose admirable, if not perfect, effort on the first movie held enough water to bridge to the Kong: Skull Island movie, AKA, the “I’m tired of these _____ Mutos on my _____ Island!” Samuel L Jackson movie (with guest appearances by Loki, Captain Marvel and everybody’s favorite Conner).
As the follow up to the 2014 Godzilla movie, there are a lot of tweaks to previous Director Gareth Edward’s formula. Gone is the mysterious hidden monster camera work that Gareth loved so much. In its place is a combination of Pacific Rim-style shots and on the ground shots that recalled Cloverfield. That scale is amazing to behold, and more than once provides powerful “money shots” for this film.
Now, if you have been around the Godzilla block for a while — you know pretty much the high-altitude arc of this movie — and that’s OK; being original is not the mission of this film. In talking about this movie, it’s important to remember that part of the mission for Legendary was to connect this film with the more casual moviegoer and not JUST the people (like me) that have all seen all the movies and can recite trivia from memory. At the end of the day, I think this film will be a welcome addition to Godzilla canon while embracing a new generation of viewers.
Before we get to the monsters, let’s just cover our human cast and plot. Overall, the people do a good job with their roles — Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell) handles herself well, and really makes you hope we get to see her for many years to come. I am normally not a fan of kids as pivotal characters in heavy movies, but Millie plays the part perfectly, and you buy in to her and her motivations.
The plot line for the humans is certainly not unique and the twist that director Michael Dougherty tries to sell us plays soft and hard to believe. You will notice (if you have seen the American Godzilla movies), a distinct core plot path commonality (yes, even with the 1999 movie). This is not a criticism by any means, just an observation of how the Godzilla mythos has translated into Western filmmaking as opposed to Japanese filmmaking. Your Western protagonist humans start with fractured relationships, that in the course of the movie Godzilla helps heal (mostly inadvertently because he is crushing and blowing up everything) — we’ll just call him Godzilla, Relationship Counselor.
With so few human characters returning for the sequel, it was important for the movie to establish itself early — which is evident by an unnecessary exposition dump we get early on. That is a shame because the actors seemed to be capable of carrying their story without the need for a data dump. There are some plot holes, and some unrealistic situations and expectations from our actors — but it’s hard to be critical of unrealistic plot points when we are talking about giant monsters here.
Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell) does a good job without being too weighty in his work — he moves the story along and has good character growth without Shattering too much.
Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell) had probably the most challenging role to fill in the film, and while I don’t necessarily agree with her character’s arc, she did a great job managing the role and selling us on her character’s motivations and feelings.
Ken Wantabe (returning as Dr. Serizawa), one of our few hold overs from the first film, is properly treated with reverence by the director, and receives an important, critical moment in the film. Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), also returning from the first film as Serizawa’s assistant, received a less fitting end as a human snow cone in one of the best sequences of the movie. You want to be upset about it, but well, that’s showbiz. Sometimes you eat the monster, and well, you get it.
Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton) also gets a shout out for making the most of his role.
Okay, so let’s get to the real monster meat here.
If you thought we got too little monster in the 2014 movie, director Dougherty heard you loud and clear. Action sets off with the monsters almost immediately. And that sequence sets the tone on the key element of plot. Clear, simple, and off we go in a giant oversized B2 bomber reminiscent of a Helicarrier.
The film opens finding the “secret” organization Monarch at odds with the rest of the world. That creates an opportunity for nefarious entities to snatch an opportunity (a plot often used in Godzilla films), which they do, and in doing so sets the stage for the rest of the film.
OK, let’s pause this movie review for a moment. There are A LOT of things that could have gone wrong with this movie. This is a giant monster movie after all, and for decades we have suspended reality to enjoy the fantasy of giant monsters. And, while Godzilla in this film still has a resemblance to that one uncle we all have that stumbles around with a beer in his hand, oblivious to most everything but yelling at the TV occasionally …
I am here to tell you the Ghidorah is finally done right. And THIS is Ghidorah’s movie.
It’s so hard with practical effects to really portray three headed monsters with each head on the end of a long neck. Ghidorah sells this movie from the first moment you see him. There was only one criticism I had on the monster, and I’ll keep it to myself because I don’t think too many other people are going to notice/care.
Now, that does not mean that he is alone. We get a great visual and performance for Mothra, and let’s just say that she is no slouch in this film. It is a truly relevant upgrade to the monster. We also get Rodan.
Nerd alert: Rodan, you may remember, is Kaiju No. 3, appearing in his own film following the introduction of Anguirus (Kaiju No. 2) in the second Godzilla movie, Godzilla Raids Again. Always an awkward fit into the mythos, Rodan is reimagined in this film as the most obvious representation of the important plot point in the movie — basically, he plays for the side he thinks is winning at any given time. And that’s OK until the very end, when he does something that I think even 1971 Toho execs would slap their foreheads on — and these are the guys that thought “Flying Godzilla” would be cool. I was going so well up to that moment, too.
The monsters are very emotive (much more so than in the 2014 movie), and Dougherty’s attention to detail here pays off nicely. We are teased with some new monsters, which has the smell of Pacific Rim influence, but really doesn’t play too heavily into the core of the film until the very end.
Dougherty liberally and skillfully sprinkles in sounds, sights and homages to Godzilla’s long and storied history. Godzilla junkies will want to watch the movie repeatedly to find them. The monster plot itself borrows from some of that mythology, “westernizes” some elements (I think unnecessarily), give you a dash of Game of Thrones-level drama.
And finally, this movie will make Yankees fans eternally happy — make no mistake, some of this footage will be meme’d and posted to sports pages for all eternity.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a great ride.