Godzilla's been stomping cities and battling beasties for 65 years across more than 30 Japanese films and countless other media. You'd think this cinematic behemoth would be tried and tested, yet Hollywood still can't get it right.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty and in theaters worldwide now, is the third American movie featuring the legendary Titan, after attempts in 1998 and 2014 disappointed audiences. The new flick even implies a link to the vintage version of the iconic creature by borrowing the US title of the very first Godzilla movie back in the 1950s.
In terms of direct links, King of the Monsters is a sequel to the dour 2014 Godzilla, and also draws on elements of 2017's delirious Kong: Skull Island. Five years after this new version of the atomic lizard stomped San Francisco, clandestine agency Monarch has tracked down assorted other giant monsters, called Titans, in hidden hibernation around the world. Luckily, Monarch has also created a device called the Orca to wake and placate the Titans.
With the movie's McGuffin established, an eco-terrorist (played by Charles Dance from Game of Thrones) kidnaps a Monarch scientist (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown) so he can use the Orca to motivate the Titans to trash the planet.
Sound complicated? That's just the first 20 minutes. From here, King of the Monsters rushes to introduce various characters, human and Titan, as we build to the first big fight sequence between Godzilla and his three-headed rival, King Ghidora.
This first battle perfectly showcases all the film's problems. There's too much shaky camera work and too many quick cuts, making the action unclear. And unconvincing CGI gives the Titans, and the locations in which they roam, an odd crystalline quality.
The set pieces are tied together by a bunch of talky scenes filmed with rapid camera movement to inject a sense of urgency and raise the stakes. Instead, it distances us from the characters. When the rampaging Titans cause the worst disasters in human history, we learn about it through impersonal news footage of ruined cities, failing to give us any sense of the human cost.
The fast pace also leaves little breathing space for the human characters, who are poorly developed, with unclear objectives. It's hard to care about their fate or even what they're doing while the giant beasties duke it out.
Which is unfortunate when you consider the stellar cast of Bradley Whitford, CCH Pounder, Ken Watanabe, Kyle Chandler, Sally Hawkins, Thomas Middleditch and Ziyi Zhang. This talented crew does what they can with their underwritten characters, but it's just not enough -- you won't care when they're killed off, whether it's sudden or with a choking amount of melodrama. And that's if you can even see their demise through the CGI haze.
As the bad guy plans to balance humanity and nature by inciting nature to crush humanity beneath its giant scaly foot, there's a hint of an intriguing moral question in there somewhere about ends justifying means. But this isn't explored in any depth. It doesn't bode well for the promised crossover Godzilla vs King Kong, coming in 2020.
King of the Monsters isn't all bad though. The monster designs are striking and memorable despite the iffy CGI, and the final battle is cool to look at as long as you don't think about it too much. There are also moments when light and color give this mindless blockbuster a distinct palette, while Bear McCreary's score is appropriately grandiose and gives us a sense of the Titans' magnificence.
Unfortunately, those elements don't make up for a poorly laid-out narrative, predictable climax or joyless ensemble of human characters, several of whom utter the Godzilla catchphrase "Long live the king."
It's good to know Godzilla will live on long after this movie.
Originally published May 29.