Godzilla: King of the Monsters is as deafening as it is visually arresting – unsurprising in a movie that pivots on the use of sonar technology, and whose opening moment is a blank screen filled with the screech of the monster unleashed by nuclear radiation in the Japanese source film from 1954.
The mythology around Godzilla has spawned several kaiju (monster) films in Japan and the United States. It began very modestly in 1954, as a production featuring the available visual effects of the era and a profound and still relevant warning about the effects of amoral science on humankind and nature. The success of Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (Godzilla in English) led to remakes in Japan and Hollywood, including productions in which Godzilla battled other mythical monsters, including the three-headed dragon Ghidorah and the massive gorilla King Kong. Over the decades, Godzilla grew in size and ability, the visual effects became more elaborate, and the plots breached the boundaries of Earth to travel to outer space.
When a Japanese scientist (played by Ken Watanabe) in Godzilla: King of the Monsters allows himself to be nuked in order to push the plot forward, the distance between the first movie and its numerous iterations is never more apparent.
The latest movie, directed by Michael Dougherty as a direct sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, attempts to channel fears over environmental degradation and climate change by staging a war between the prehistoric beast and his misshapen cousins, including Ghidorah and the megamoth Mothra. These slumbering beasts, who seem to be all over the place, have been awakened by moves not dissimilar to the contrivances of filmmakers hired to keep franchise fires burning. Mad scientist Emma (Vera Farmiga), aided by her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), teams up with eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) to restore the balance in nature by unleashing an inter-monster war. Like the supervillain Thanos from the Avengers films, Emma believes that Earth is overpopulated and bloated, and she comes up with a machine that controls the monsters by sending out bioacoustics signals.
Emma’s estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) initially thinks that Godzilla should be destroyed, but as events unfold, Mark and his posse realise the value of channeling the canine-faced monster’s strengths to prevent Emma’s designs.
The attempt of humans to wag the dog has moments of spectacle of the kind that only Hollywood can deliver. Among the most vivid sequences are the encounter between Ghidorah and the massive bird-like Rodan and Godzilla’s underwater resurrection.
The muddy brown-grey palate, which will need excellent cinema projection to be seen in its intended glory, is paired with a background score by Bear McCreary that includes war-like chants linking the present production to its Asian roots. Apart from testing the auditory nerve, not to mention nerves in general, the music symbolises the go-for-broke quality of scenes that should have stayed on paper but are laid out on the screen with unabashed gung-ho.
The actors get short shrift and are reduced to literally running between the feet of giants. Only Kyle Chandler leaves a mark, while the talents of Vera Farmiga, Charles Dance and Sally Hawkins are wasted in the service of razzmatazz.
Despite a breathless pace that allows characters to hop locations in about as much time as you would say “Star Trek”, the narrative flags ever so often. The banal dialogue repeats the imagery, most evident in the moment when Madison tells Emma, “You are a monster.” Yes, we got that already.
Among the unintended moments of humour is the one in which Zhang Ziyi’s scientist talks about Ghidorah as the monster that “people were too scared to write about” in their collections of myths and legends. This is certainly not the case with the movie’s writers, who work hard to bolster the Godzilla mythos while delivering the thrills and leaving enough room to tease the planned Godzilla and King Kong crossover.
The Godzilla-Kong Superbowl, which is intended for 2020, is a strong metaphor for the overall theme of the consequences of human meddling. Kong: Skull Island (2017) was co-produced by Legendary Entertainment and Godzilla’s long-time producer, Warner Bros. The planned “MonsterVerse” imagines a world in which the dinosaur-like creature and the gigantic gorilla will tear the screen apart even as studios find ways to milk intellectual property to its last drop.
Warner Bros also owns to the rights to DC Comics characters. Since the monster universe already seems oversaturated, perhaps not even Godzilla can prevent bright minds from coming up with a scenario in which caped crusaders either battle or team up with monsters to save Earth. Here’s a light-and-sound Monsters Assemble! show that we would pay good money for.