WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in theaters now.
There's a simplistic beauty to a film that knows what it is and works to become the best version of itself. Look at something like John Wick, which unapologetically embraces gonzo action beats, turning brutal violence into visually stunning art.
It's clear that's what Godzilla: King of the Monsters wants to do. It wants to showcase the giant monsters roaming the Earth as mythological figures. The over the top monster fights are treated with a reverence and scope that makes them at times truly awe-inspiring.
But the film still tries to force a human subplot into the narrative that over-stuffs it to the point of exhaustion. The human element is clearly an afterthought in King of the Monsters, so the film should have cut it, shaved 45 minutes off the runtime and just been the goofy and gorgeous monster movie it so clearly wants to be.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters centers around Titans (the film's chosen term for really big monsters) waking all around the world, thanks in part to the revitalization of King Ghidorah. The absolutely massive monster is introduced as an apex predator among the creatures, capable of becoming something of a pack leader.
If Ghidorah remains at the top of the food chain, the other Titans will destroy the world as we know it. But Godzilla, an ancient rival to Ghidorah, might be powerful enough to kill the three-headed dragon. It's very much a movie about monsters punching each other for dominance over other monsters, which isn't a premise full of subtlety or nuance, but that's not necessarily a problem.
Frequently, the film indulges in the kind of moments that define the B-movie genre. When Rodan flies over the city of Isla de Marta, a soldier grabs onto a child before he can be swept away in the chaos, screaming "Hang on, kid!" Doctor Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford) at one point mumbles, "come on, get up big guy" when Godzilla has been hurt, as if he's Mick talking to Rocky in the middle of a boxing match. The scientists of Monarch find Atlantis and then five minutes later destroy it with a nuke.
It's a silly film that threads the massive monster fights with likable characters who either know how goofy this all is (like Whitford, who's clearly having a blast) or appreciates the beauty of the Titans. This is what Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) does, acknowledging and respecting the Titans and their power, someone marveling at the same explosion of visuals as we are. That's all you need for the human element -- to allow the scale of everything to overtake the viewer.
The film is genuinely beautiful at times, using everything from Biblical imagery to modern catastrophes to create art on an epic canvas. It's a visually stunning film, not even just in the effects but the framing and composition of the shots. Director Michael Dougherty proves himself an extremely effective filmmaker with this movie, turning what could be simple moments into visually distinctive set pieces. It's just a shame that the film doesn't allow him to solely focus on those elements.
The Human Element
A surprising amount of the film's running time is dedicated to the Russell family, Mark (Kyle Chandler), Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Mark and Emma were both members of Monarch, the Titan-monitoring organization, until the events of the last Godzilla film ended with their son dead.
Their marriage has crumbled in the ensuing five years, with Mark becoming a drunken wreck before leaving Monarch all together. Their family drama isn't necessarily terrible or confusing, but it does feel like an unnecessary aspect of a movie that's primarily focused on the sheer scope and scale of the Titans.
This human element keeps bringing the film down to a smaller, more intimate level. That was the direction the previous Godzilla film took as well. But that film primarily focused on those familial aspects. The film wasn't so much about Godzilla but about the humans trying to deal with him. That's why the action was never the main point of that film, but the action is front and center in King of the Monsters.
Whereas the M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) attacks were typically off-camera in Godzilla, multiple Titans are showcased awakening and going on rampages. King of the Monsters wants to be about the battles, so the plot about the Russells feels more like filler, which isn't needed in a movie that runs for over two hours. The characters still have roles to play in the narrative, but the attention the film brings to their personal dramas distracts from the actual point of the movie.
If King of the Monsters had been willing to cut down its focus on the Russells, the movie could have been 45 minutes shorter and decidedly more focused. If you want to make a beautiful movie about giant monsters fighting, then just do it. Don't try to weigh it down with a human drama that adds almost nothing to the film.
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.