Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
Director: Michael Dougherty
Screenwriters: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Zhang Ziyi, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a beautiful piece of cinematographic art that suffers from a banal script and fails to deliver a satisfying story separate from the film’s action. It is also a picture that seems unable to present a clear philosophical and/or moral thesis regarding the “goodness” and necessity of titans (the term the film substitutes for kaiju), and fails to give any good reason for humanity to not simply kill them all (if humans are even capable of such a task). Perhaps logic isn’t the most pressing concern within monster-bash movies, but King of the Monsters may have gone too far.
At the top of the list of good things King of the Monsters has to offer is the work of Lawrence Sher, the VFX team and director Michael Dougherty on the visuals. The CGI is nothing short of incredible, and on par with Aquaman for the best seen on the big screen over the past 6 months or so. The red, yellow and blue coloration associated with monsters (blue for Godzilla, yellow for Ghidorah), character emotions and plot developments, ensure that the visual splendour on offer also has meaning, bathing the picture in not only a visual treat for the eyes but a significant one at that. To this point, the most strikingly beautiful visual component of this film is the plethora of Lovecraftian shots of enormous titans contrasted with tiny humans, especially those shot in the ocean that parallel Lovecraft’s most famous works Dagon and The Call of Cthulu.
Where this film differs from Lovecraft is in the concept of cosmicism; in Lovecraft’s fiction, humanity is insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, and his Old Ones (who are natural beings like the titans in the film) are indifferent to humanity. This film puts humanity front and center for this battle between cosmically powerful beings, going so far as to consistently revisit human drama despite each of the human characters lacking depth at best, and being totally void of personality at worst. The human antagonist Jonah (Charles Dance) is introduced through an expository round table that all of the good guys are at, and he does little else besides say a couple of evil lines here and there. The film’s height of hubris and absurdity is the discovery that human voices are an important element in the audible signal that the characters use to control, or at least manage, titans.
The worst aspect of this film is its writing. King of the Monsters not only fails to incorporate strong and understandable laws and limits within its own universe (including zero attempts to answer why humanity hasn’t just wiped out the entire clan of titans by now, or why any of the titans can be considered to have different motivations from one another in the first place), but also incorporates one of the least imaginative tropes of blockbuster cinema, as evidenced in Batman v. Superman, where characters explain that we needn’t worry about loss of life because huge metropolitan areas where epic fights take place are evacuated and/or abandoned. Charles Dance is also shamefully underutilized and barely featured despite being the only true human antagonist in the film. He delivers stupid one-liners (for example, “long live the king”) like they’re lines from early ‘Game of Thrones’, and his character’s lack of depth and importance to the overall narrative is evidence of deep-rooted issues regarding the film’s characterisations.
Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is written to be about as one-dimensional as a protagonist can be – the only adversity he faces is the plot, but fortunately he always finds the right answers when called upon. Then there’s a side character, Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), who is almost exclusively used for comic relief and keeps bringing up the Hollow Earth Theory to explain titans travelling really far, really fast – it becomes a rarity for him to have more than one sentence to offer in any of his exchanges. Beyond that, sacrificial lambs are picked off at will, often with little to no emotional impact due to the overwhelmingly little they’ve had to do until that point and the stereotypes that make for their foundations.
Even the titular character, Legendary’s Godzilla, is (according to the film and at odds with what it seems was established in the first movie) a somewhat benevolent being that is consciously causing mass destruction to restore balance. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), never relents on that point, and thus discovers that Ghidorah is malevolent because it is not a native titan – the message of the “other” as “evil” being counterproductive to our current societal concerns and the character seemingly only used to advance the plot. How they can tell the difference between one titan’s destruction and another’s is not explained, it’s just asserted by Dr. Russell and Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) that some titans are good. It read like a justification for America’s destabilization efforts in the Middle East; sometimes you gotta lead a few covert coups, drone strike civilians, or start long, bloody wars to bring about freedom! It is (consciously or not) propaganda attempting to normalize an “ends justify the means” approach to destruction.
At the end of the day, nobody needs a summer blockbuster to try so hard to make philosophical points and explain science, people go to watch big monsters fight. So while the cinematography in Godzilla: King of Monsters is good, it doesn’t make it worth seeing the the movie. The issue here was that there needed to be less focus on humans, more monsters punching each other, and they definitely needed to take themselves less seriously if they were going to offer so little by the way of logic within the film or fundamentals within the script.