WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in theaters now.
You generally don't watch a Godzilla movie for the human characters, but it still feels sad to report that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is even worse than Warner Bros. and Legendary's 2014 Godzilla film when it comes to the human story.
Gareth Edwards' first entry in the MonsterVerse miscalculated by killing off its one interesting human character (Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody) early on, leaving viewers to follow a bunch of rather boring humans in a film that was light on actual monster action. Michael Doughery corrects course in terms of giving Godzilla and his fellow kaiju more screen time, but the human cast is somehow even worse. Whereas the 2014 film's characters were boring, the ones in King of the Monsters are actively annoying.
No character in the film is more annoying than Dr. Emma Russell, played by Vera Farmiga. The Oscar-nominated actress is trying her best with the material she's given, but there's nothing she can do to make this terribly-written character work. To some degree, Emma's supposed to be annoying; she's sort of a "villain" for a moment and other characters say that she's crazy. But villains and crazy people can still be made compelling and believable. Emma is neither.
Emma's son Andrew died five years ago in Godzilla's rampage across San Francisco. She and her former husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) have split up, and she's living with their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Having gone through the trauma of losing a child, you'd think she'd be protective, maybe even overprotective, of her daughter.
Instead, she brings Maddy along with her to top secret Monarch bases and lets her touch the Titans.
The display of reckless child endangerment from a character who has every reason to do the exact opposite is utterly baffling. Emma might be "crazy," but she's not supposed to be stupid. She's brilliant enough to co-invent the Orca, a device that can communicate with Titans. Her "evil" eco-terrorist plot, unleashing Titans so that the destruction rebuilds the ecosystem, is shown to actually work in the film's end credits sequence!
We're not saying smart characters can't make stupid decisions. Indeed, sometimes the most brilliant people make completely boneheaded moves. But character decisions, whether or not they're "good" or "bad" decisions, have to be the result of that character's motivations. If Emma's whole character motivation is about building a better world for her daughter (her character bio on the official Monarch Sciences website describes her as a "dedicated mother"), then shouldn't her decisions demonstrate the least bit of care for her daughter's safety?
Late in the film, when Emma's explaining her plan, Mark does call her out on the whole child endangerment issue. Emma's response is that Maddy's been "trained" to deal with the Titans, an answer that raises tons of other questions.
Why would you throw that detail in as part of a single line of dialogue long past the point where anyone could still care about these weak human characters? It comes off as a last-minute addition to the script made in an attempt to pacify some studio notes that pointed out the problem without actually doing the work of naturally dramatizing the issue. Saying Maddy's "trained" just doesn't mean much of anything without actually showing us what that means.
Imagine if, right after the opening 2014 flashback scene, we went into a montage of Emma actually training Maddy in the art of monster handling. Imagine Emma as a Sarah Connor-type survivalist for whom preparing her child for danger is her way of showing how she cares. A much more interesting and dramatic story emerges; it makes her seem crazier, but also truly dedicated as a mother.
Perhaps the writers thought such a characterization would make her seem too suspicious from the start. It's notable that the "training" comment doesn't come until after the explanation of her being fully in league with the eco-terrorists. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted the reveal that she's (sort of) a "villain" to be a surprise.
Surprise is overrated in filmmaking these days. Saving information about characters for big reveals can be done effectively, but too often it's at the cost of actually letting viewers get to know and care about those characters when it matters. If it actually dramatized Emma's character in a way that made sense, she might have been a compelling human center for the film. Instead, she's its greatest irritant.
Directed by Michael Dougherty, Godzilla: King of the Monsters stars Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Charles Dance, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds and Zhang Ziyi.