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Nature points out the folly of man – ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

June 4, 2019
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There’s something joyful about giant monster movies. They inspire a kind of glee, a sense of childlike wonder in the viewer. Sometimes, it can be nice to go to the movies and get swept away by sheer, unwavering bigness. Even when it is dorky and/or shoddy and/or low-rent, the sense of scale is always there.

Godzilla movies and their ilk have been the foundation of that particular niche. And in this current climate of cinematic universes, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has decided to shoehorn everyone’s favorite gigantic radioactive lizard into a franchise of his own.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a follow-up to 2014’s “Godzilla.” Those movies – along with 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” – are the beginnings of what I’m going to go ahead and call the BAMCU (Big-Ass Monster Cinematic Universe). This latest installment is the one where the multi-film world-building begins in earnest, the one that strives to develop the connective tissue necessary to tie these blockbusters together.

But while “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” offers up a fair amount of monster-on-monster action and updated versions of some classic Toho creatures, it can’t quite deliver on the connectivity side of things. Balancing the stakes – skyscraper-sized reptiles shooting lasers at each other versus human beings trying to save both their families and the world – was always going to be a tricky task … and it’s a task that director Michael Dougherty and his team never quite manage.

While we get a quick flash of the immediate aftermath of the first film’s climactic battle, this installment really kicks off five years after the events of that film. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, “Captive State”) is a paleobiologist who has been working with formerly-secret-but-still-kind-of-secret monster-hunting organization Monarch, living at a remote site featuring a still-developing giant monster (they call them Titans) along with a research team and her teenage daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, TV’s “Stranger Things”).

Along with her now-estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler, “First Man”) – the loss of their son during Godzilla’s earlier rampage was too much for their marriage to overcome – Emma designed a device that would theoretically allow humans to communicate with Titans. But immediately upon the first successful use of the device – to communicate with the Titan nicknamed Mothra – a group of ecoterrorists led by a rogue British officer named Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, TV’s “The Widow”) show up to take it – and Emma and Madison as well.

Mark is drawn back into Monarch, brought on board to help the team – Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”), Dr. Chen (Ziyi Zhang, “The Cloverfield Paradox”), Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins, “Paddington 2”), Dr. Stanton (Bradley Whitford, “Destroyer”) and tech director Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch, TV’s “Silicon Valley”) – figure out how to track the device and find Alan and his crew before they can unleash a plethora of Titans to wreak havoc on the world.

The Monarch scientists and their military escorts make their way to Antarctica, the site of the largest Titan yet to wake, a three-headed flying beast known alternately as Ghidorah and Monster Zero. It is revealed that the ecoterrorists want to use the Titans to essentially wipe the slate clean, to destroy much of current civilization and allow the wounds mankind has inflicted on the world to heal.

While Monarch suspects that at least some of the Titans are benevolent – or at least ambivalent – toward humanity, the potential emergence on another alpha Titan on the level of Godzilla means that a fight is coming … and mankind’s future hinges on the outcome.

The biggest problem with “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is the fact that, well … we don’t get enough of the monsters. Some of the scenes are incredibly impressive, with a suitable sense of scale (in every sense of the word). The filmmakers do a great job of never allowing us to lose track of just how huge these creatures are – and how huge an impact they have on the environment around them.

In addition, it doesn’t hurt that they trot out versions of a few of the classics – Mothra, of course (perhaps the best-realized of all the updates), and Ghidorah; Rodan is pretty rad as well, though their nod to Gamera seemed sadly lacking in jet-powered legs – to go with some of the newer creations.

But while there are some solid CGI sequences of monstrous melees, we also get more shaky-cam quick-cut nonsense than is probably necessary. Those moments muddy the waters in an unfortunate way, sapping the good stuff of some of its impact.

Here’s the thing – the human performances are fine, but “KotM” spends far too much time on them. I appreciate the desire to world-build and develop narrative, but no one goes to a Godzilla movie for the complex interpersonal dynamics. They come for giant monsters fighting other giant monsters in the middle of volcanoes and hurricanes. That’s just the truth.

Frankly, the cast is probably TOO good. It’s a strong ensemble, but it’s almost as if they aren’t quite sure what kind of movie they’re making. For instance, this movie isn’t supposed to be “Kramer vs. Kramer” with giant lizards, but someone probably should have told Kyle Chandler. Farmiga goes a bit too hard as well. Brown is fine – it’s a part she could do in her sleep. The supporting cast is a bit better – Dance, Whitford, Middleditch and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (as a Monarch escort soldier) seem to have a particularly good understanding of the context.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” ultimately collapses under its own weight, the result of trying to do too much all at once. It’s a film that exists largely as a conduit to the next installment (2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which I am 100 percent here for). It’ll scratch your giant-monster-fighting itch, but don’t expect much else.

[2.5 out of 5]

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