Godzilla: King of the Monsters is just as impressively stupid as Kong: Skull Island, though, if this burgeoning MonsterVerse takes any cues from the forebears it now remakes steeped in exhausting CGI, increasingly “impressively stupid” is the trajectory this shared universe was bound to follow all along. What amounts to a loose remake of 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, pulling pieces from Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla (David Strathairn, one of the few characters from Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot, shows up briefly to say the words “oxygen destroyer” as dead-seriously as possible), Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla 2 swells with too many boring human characters, competently sets up some sequels, thrives solely on its (sometimes awe-inspiring) monster fights and makes no fucking sense. So basically: pretty good Godzilla movie!
Dougherty has compared his film’s relation to Edwards’ like that of Aliens to Alien, a corollary that correctly steers one’s expectations for the sequel but shouldn’t be taken as anything more than that. As Honda’s own Mothra vs. Godzilla was to his first kaiju film—transforming a dire sci-fi tale of post-war trauma into a fantasy smorgasbord of quasi-myths, pop ballads and teensy-weensy twin monster caretakers affectionately referred to as the “Peanuts”—Dougherty’s vision ejects all serious ecological pondering for arch melodrama, eschewing all mystery for immediate spectacle. Within the first minute of the film we get a full glimpse of the giant larval Mothra spewing sticky goo all over a futuristic pseudo-governmental facility; 70 minutes later, Washington DC is under enough water to allow a high-tech battleship to float between its monuments, indulging in a satisfying bit of big budget annihilation porn for those of us fantasizing about just wiping this whole “America” experiment off the map and starting over. Whereas Edwards’ creature feature reveled in the big reveal, shrouding Godzilla in urban and meteorological artifice, Dougherty imagines a world of people no longer phased by the existence of Titans, of civilization accustomed to the apocalypse.
In the 1964 Ghidorah, one of our many human characters watches a game show in which two young boys can meet any celebrity they want to. The boys choose Mothra, so the game show hosts call upon the assistance of the Peanuts to sing for the monster’s presence, all captured on prime time television. Waving away the image of grinning pre-pubescents nervously approaching a gargantuan centipedal demigod, the character scoffs, “Not my cup of tea.” Except for a few logistical items—the three-headed Ghidorah is an unstoppable “invasive species” from space; Mothra is the guiding feminine force uniting the monsters against Ghidorah; Rodan is kind of an annoying jerk—the most salient theme Dougherty’s carried over from the original source text is that the human race can get used to anything. Ecological devastation (and the reality of climate change that now no blockbuster denies) can be tuned out if it’s not your “cup of tea,” even with boiling sea levels rising to meet you at your doorstep.
Picking up not long after its predecessor, King of the Monsters begins with a terrorist attack care of token evil guy sophisticate Charles Dance, who plays name-pulled-from-hat Colonel Alan Jonah, military man turned eco-terrorist. Jonah and his mercenary squad attack a Monarch outpost, kidnapping Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her very dramatic teen daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, who acts so hard she spends half the movie apoplectic in an adult’s arms) because of Russell’s invention, the “Orca,” a suitcase-sized machine that can analyze the Titans’ “bio-acoustics” and create complementary sonar-based noises to “wake” and “control” the monsters. (The movie never really clarifies what “bio-acoustics” are—sometimes they’re vocal mating calls, and sometimes they’re just like heartbeats or something? It doesn’t matter. None of this matters.) Jonah plans to rouse all discovered Titans to let them hash out their ancient differences on the Earth’s surface, vicariously decimating human civilization so that the Earth might survive despite our best efforts to render it uninhabitable.
What King of the Monsters is really trying to convey about our environmental crisis inevitably contradicts itself into nothingness: Placed in the mouth of a villain, the plan to get humans out of the way and restore the natural order is supposed to be a bad idea, but the existence of the Titans in the first place means that maybe we are the villains after all? At one point, after a studio-mandated heel turn, a character explains that Las Vegas and San Francisco, flattened in the first film, now thrive with wildlife (a metaphor complicated by the claim that the radiation the Titans give off actually helps new life grow, because radiation can be good?), so we should just let the Titans roam free. Another character responds that setting the Titans free would be playing with forces far out of human control. Where Dougherty stands on any of this is anyone’s guess. Inevitability doesn’t lend itself well to satisfying storytelling.
In the time since the first film, Monarch has grown into a ridiculously well-funded government-adjacent entity with outposts all over the world housing and studying the many Titans discovered in the interim. Still led by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), Monarch now has its own arsenal of aircraft carriers and massive spaceships and quirky super-scientists that surely cause more pollution than even the American Military Industrial Complex. Because dorks with bad posture need protection, Monarch is supported by the “G-Team,” an elite Titan-fighting force fronted by Colonel Foster (Aisha Hinds) and filled with such capable soldiers as CWO Jackson Barnes (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) whose primary purpose is to drop the movie’s single allotted f-bomb and generally wise-crack his way through each setpiece. Barnes represents your typical guy who takes each new monster as it comes, one more jaded bystander on our dying planet just trying to make it from today to tomorrow in one piece. Barnes’s cup of tea? Unloading barrels of lead into a monster’s ugly-ass face. Thomas Middleditch is in this movie too.
Dr. Russell’s ex-husband and Madison’s dad, the very dad-like Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), also co-created the Orca, so, as one might expect, he’s the only high-T bro who can help get Emma and Madison back from Jonah’s evil clutches. Apparently. Regardless of however many genius minds Monarch has at its disposal, it takes a loud and sweaty white guy to determine that Godzilla, our big sweet boy, is “hunting,” and so should be followed to find the Orca. No one else could come up with this idea. Real recognize real. Cue Bradley Whitford squawking about the “Hollow Earth” and King of the Monsters is one Joe Rogan podcast episode away from decrying the New World Order.
Of course, all this exposition pales before the grandeur and gorgeousness of the movie’s monster fights, and to Dougherty’s credit, he and cinematographer Lawrence Sher capture the scale of these brawls with as much aplomb as Edwards and his DP, Seamus McGarvey, did in the predecessor. Juxtaposing human-sized drama against classic Toho iconography and one jaw-dropping silhouette after another, King of the Monsters is often more magnificently overwhelming than not. Combined with images of nuclear devastation (Rodan flies over a Mexican village, his wings leveling homes like in grainy A-bomb footage) and Biblical floods, sprinkled with mythical civilizations and Lovecraftian magical realism, these scenes of giant creatures in combat other take on the stakes of a literal rapture. Gods do exist, and they want to break each other. We are insignificant in their shadows, and the only way we can comprehend our doom, live with the fate we’ve made for ourselves, is to buffer that existential anxiety through a mish-mash of pop cultural detritus and the probably lame hope that at least one of these beasts cares whether we live or not. To that extent, Dougherty may “get” Honda’s original films more intuitively than Edwards, raising our deepest and most damning anxieties from the dormant earth of our pop culture wasteland, transforming our fears into violent behemoths and affording us the unique catharsis of not only watching a colossal lava pteranodon butt heads with an epic space hydra, but ensuring us that they’re doing so for our sakes.
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writers: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Zhang Ziyi, David Strathairn
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.