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Humans must look like pathetic insects to Godzilla and other gigantic monsters. As they fight each other and ravage our cities, we scurry around the ground like ants who just discovered a discarded ice cream cone. Godzilla: King of the Monsters deepens this idea with a key observation: We are not insects, but parasites who are killing the planet and draining its resources. That cynicism does not translate to the script, unfortunately, since King of the Monsters turns its attention to lazy melodrama and too much exposition. When a monster movie presents the monster action as an afterthought, it is time for the filmmakers to rethink their priorities.
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The Godzilla film from 2014 exceeded audience expectations because director Gareth Edwards took his time with the creature, hinting at its size and awesome power, so there was a real payoff when we finally saw him lay waste to San Francisco. Now, King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty, has little of that pacing or anticipation. A shadowy corporation named Monarch monitors the monsters, with its lead scientist Emma (Vera Farmiga) using a strange machine to control them. The exact function of this machine is never quite clear, since the script by Dougherty and Zach Shields shifts its purpose based on whatever the scene requires. Either way, Emma goes rogue after an eco-terrorist organization takes her hostage, so she unleashes long-dormant monsters at a breakneck pace.
Aside from Godzilla, Dougherty also introduces Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. Of these three new monsters, only Mothra makes a strong impression because, as the queen to Godzilla’s king, she makes feminine movements and screeches that are in stark contrast to the rugged roars of everyone else. If you’re a fan of the classic films from Toho, these creatures will be exciting and instantly familiar. If you’re new to these creatures, then do not worry because the characters will explain them at length, repeatedly. There is an interesting strategy at play: The cast is stacked with dependable character actors who have imperfect information, so the exposition dump has a natural feel to it.
Once the film settles into its groove and Monarch chases the monsters all over the planet, it becomes clear these characters do not have names or personalities. The actors are useful as recognizable faces that can sometimes sell ridiculous dialogue. It does not help that Monarch’s jet somehow traverses the globe at lightning speed, always popping up at the most dramatic moment possible. Only Ken Watanabe makes an impression as a high-ranking Monarch scientist. His respect for Godzilla borders on affection, and he is the only character who truly regards the monsters with a sense of wonder.
The Toho Godzilla films may have rudimentary special effects, but they have the advantage of being filmed with abundant light and unobstructed views. Snow, rain, and smoke obscure the action in King of the Monsters. In fact, Dougherty does not present a clear view of Godzilla until the film’s final minutes. Until then, the audience must squint to make any sense of how the monsters are fighting each other, or what city is under siege. We watch a key character get killed midway through the film, but we are not certain until the next scene, where we see their face on a monitor along with the word “DECEASED.” Dougherty hides his murky visuals with attacks on submarines, airplanes, and other vehicles. The actors jostle around the frame like they’re in classic episodes of Star Trek, and each moment with them means another away from the monsters, so the film fails to meet the basic appeal of its genre.
Thanks to 2014’s Godzilla and Watanabe’s performance, the giant lizard is an oddly comforting screen presence. He is not cuddly, but he moves with dogged determination and causes minimal collateral damage. His dad bod figure is also a welcome contrast to the sinewy, strange shape of his adversary King Ghidorah, who has three heads that can regenerate at will. But King of the Monsters keeps Godzilla out of the film for long stretches, focusing instead on who has the Monarch machine or whatever. The phrase “Let them fight” became instantly iconic when Ken Watanabe uttered it five years ago. Maybe he should have added “in a visually comprehensible way” to the end of his command.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens Friday in theaters everywhere.