By Richard Ades
It was back in 1954 that Japan gave us Godzilla, the story of an ancient monster reawakened by tests of the hydrogen bomb. The original movie (though toned down for its U.S. release) was a grimly compelling morality tale. Like Frankenstein, it warned of the horrors that can be unleashed by scientists bent on advancement at all costs.
Over the years, the classic has spawned numerous sequels and reboots. Many of the earliest were campy affairs in which an actor in a Godzilla costume trampled miniature facsimiles of Tokyo while fighting new monsters such as Mothra and Rodan. More impressive was the 2014 U.S. remake, which used the latest cinematic technology to recapture the awe and wonder—if not the moral authority—of the original.
Now we have Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which could be the Godzilla movie to end all Godzilla movies. Not because it’s so great, unfortunately, but because it’s so boring.
Thanks to the haphazard direction of Michael Dougherty and the light-challenged cinematography of Lawrence Sher, the movie’s frequent battle scenes are dark, frenetic spectacles in which we struggle to discern who is being attacked by whom. And thanks to the drab, needlessly convoluted script by Dougherty and his co-writers, we struggle to care one way or the other.
Building on the mythology of 2014’s Godzilla, the flick centers on Monarch, an international organization devoted to controlling Godzilla and other monstrous “titans” by keeping them in a state of hibernation. That puts the group at odds with members of the U.S. government and military who believe the only good titan is a dead titan.
Sharing this belief is scientist Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), who lost a son to a previous Godzilla attack and went into an alcohol-fueled tailspin that alienated him from his wife, Emma (Vera Farmiga), and daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Further dividing the family is Emma’s devotion to studying, rather than destroying, the monsters. In fact, we first meet her in a Monarch “outpost” where none other than Mothra is about to emerge from a gigantic cocoon.
Now here’s where the plot gets really strange. After Emma brings the monster under control with a nifty device called the Orca, the outpost is attacked by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah and his troops proceed to kill everyone present except for Emma and Madison, who are taken hostage.
Or are they? It turns out that Emma is actually in cahoots with Jonah—sort of. While he’s out to collect titan DNA for presumably commercial gain, Emma is determined to release Godzilla and the other monsters in order to save the world from its greatest adversary: mankind. She theorizes that we’ll eventually learn to live in harmony with these ancient beasts, who will help us return Earth to its preindustrial purity.
Let’s pause at this point to consider how far this morality tale has strayed from its 1954 roots. Rather than being our punishment for introducing deadly new weapons to the planet, Godzilla and friends are now seen as allies in the fight against global warming. Of course, millions of innocent people would be trampled and otherwise destroyed once these “allies” are unleashed, but we have no time to consider that ethical complication because the script introduces yet another twist.
Unlike Godzilla and the other titans, it turns out that the mightiest of the monsters, the three-headed Ghidorah, is actually a space alien and will only push Earth further from its original ecological balance. Curses! Not only that, but Godzilla has been weakened or killed in battle and is unable to save us from this invasive species. Double curses!
Given all the busy plotting about monsters and ways to deal with them, it’s hard to care about Mark, Emma and Madison, let alone the many peripheral characters around them. In fact, I found myself worrying more about the actors themselves, including established talents such as Sally Hawkins and Bradley Whitford, who are stuck in unrewarding, one-note roles. Fairing not much better is the Japanese-born Ken Watanabe, whose character, the Godzilla-loving Dr. Serizawa, spouts so much Eastern-style philosophy that he jokes about getting it from a fortune cookie.
The dialogue hits its lowest mark whenever the monsters show up and the humans respond with profound statements such as “Jesus,” “God,” or “Oh, shit!” As for us viewers, we’re likely to be aiming a few choice words of our own at the technicians who lit the monsters so dimly that we can barely make them out.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (PG-13) opens May 31 at theaters nationwide.