To be a Godzilla fan is to embrace the sublime and the stupid simultaneously. To accept a giant, Tokyo-stomping, radioactive lizard as a metaphor for nature’s wrath, the horrors of war, or the danger of unconstrained nuclear power — and not just a goofy special effect — requires a vivid imagination and the faith to surrender to fantasy and wonder. To love this kind of movie also requires you to choke down convoluted plotting, technobabble, and turgid melodrama — which unfortunately this flick is all too eager to serve up in between its cataclysmic, show-stopping, CGI-soaked monster brawls.
Nobody has ever bought a ticket to one of these movies for the delicate human drama, but a rather solid cast of actors has been assembled to brood and spit out exposition, at least when not ducking falling debris. At the heart of the storyline is scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her tween daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who are still grappling with the loss of an older brother, killed five years earlier when the monsters rampaged through San Francisco. Driven by grief, Emma has developed a gadget called the “Orca,” which uses sound waves to soothe the mighty creatures, a development that makes her a target of sinister eco-terrorist leader Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, of Game of Thrones fame). This also puts our heroines at the heart of a clash between members of the secretive MONARCH organization, which studies and tracks the titans seeking to understand and coexist with them, as well as the military that wants to eradicate the threat.
The rest of the cast dutifully wades through nonsensical scientific jargon and absurd logic gaps while trying to keep their dignity. Ken Watanabe plays it deathly straight as Gojira superfan (’Zilla’s Japanese name) Dr. Serizawa, while Bradley Whitford giddily hams it all the way up as the resident tech nerd and comic relief. Meanwhile, poor Kyle Chandler, as Maddie’s estranged father, spends much of the movie sopping wet, getting rained on while standing on runways and the decks of submarines, and shouting over explosions. Despite honest efforts to engage us, it’s hard to connect with any of these folks as they fumble through the silly script, something that wasn’t a problem in the previous installment of the “Monsterverse,” 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.
Perhaps sensitive to complaints about the scarcity of battles in Gareth Edwards’ more meditative 2014 franchise reboot, new director Michael Dougherty (Krampus) triples down on the mutant mayhem, with a small army of titanic creatures slugging it out, usually behind a haze of smoke, soot, snow, fire, and any other visual trickery that can be layered on. For this royal rumble, not only do we get the return of the plus-sized, Americanized Dad Bod Zilla, but a coterie of his most famous rivals and tag-team partners including: the soaring pterodactyl-like Rodan, the ethereal insect queen Mothra, and the ultimate bad boy himself, “Monster Zero,” a three-headed nightmare dragon with wickedly destructive power. The big final showdown, in an abandoned Fenway Park, is a satisfying clash of the titans, though the sustained carnage leaves you wondering what they’ll do for an encore.
Longtime kaiju fans will certainly get a thrill seeing modernized takes on these iconic creatures going at it once again, though the glossy (and often overwhelming) effects lack the irresistibly cheesy charm of men in rubber suits grappling around on miniature cityscapes. There was magic in the childhood act of belief that has fueled this franchise for seven decades. In its best moments, Godzilla: King of the Monsters still possesses touches of that magic, and the pure, dumb summer fun of it all, with an emphasis on the dumb.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Run-time: 131 minutes
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