The very first thing Godzilla: King of the Monsters presents to you is the blaring skree-onk of Godzilla’s iconic caterwauling cry. It sets the tone immediately: This is not going to go how 2014's Godzilla reboot went. It’s also perhaps not going to go the way you might have expected it to.
Ever since its haunting first trailer wowed San Diego Comic-Con last year, Michael Dougherty’s King of the Monsters has presented itself as an artful paean to the inherent beauty of its monsters. Everything from “Clair de Lune” to tasteful orchestral covers of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has soundtracked footage of Godzilla and his kaiju cohorts, inviting us to consider the poetry behind the carnage unfolding. But while the film itself does indeed revel in the destruction its gigantic namesake and its monstrous rivals to the throne bring with them, it doesn’t really have anything poetic to say about that calamity, beyond acknowledging that watching a giant, three-headed dragon barrel towards an atomic-breath-spewing radioactive monstrosity is completely and utterly awesome.
As a love letter to the cinematic history of these beloved beasts, King of the Monsters excels, an antidote to the collective dismay that Gareth Edwards’ 2014 cinematic reboot spent more time teasing epic monster fights instead of actually showing them. While there are plenty of intriguing aspersions and allusions to the vivid, half-century-plus history these creatures have on film in the background of King of the Monsters for diehard kaiju fans, this is a movie that is all about its triumphant action—whether it’s watching hapless humans get mulched and blasted by monster stomps and electric breath-blasts, or the even bigger thrill unfolding as Godzilla and Ghidorah truly begin their tussle for the titular crown (Rodan and Mothra admittedly play second ringers, but each get their moments to truly shine).
Every set piece in the film is vividly, gorgeously rendered, artfully shot to convey a sense of scale and scope to its destruction unlike anything its predecessor—or even any other action movie around right now—could even begin to comprehend. There is a coherence to Dougherty’s framing of the action too, that straddles a difficult line between being clear enough for audiences to see (and admire), while visually hectic enough to convey the alien, furious scope of the monstrous battles unfolding in front of their cosmic beam and explosion-seared eyeballs.
If you’re the certain kind of person who would cheer as Godzilla drags himself up from a beating to charge back into combat against his three-headed foe, then King of the Monsters doesn’t just invite you to do so openly, but encourages it with a gleeful gusto with its almost ceaseless dedication to bringing the full weight of its monstrous stars to bear. It helps that Big G and his titanic comrades also have oodles of personality to them—from the way they thunder across landscapes or through the piercing screeches of their battle cries—that make them feel just as charismatic on screen as their human counterparts, if not more so at times.
Therein lies one of the films’ problems, however. Being so gloriously self-indulgent with its impressive action means that ultimately what King of the Monsters cannot cure from its predecessor is a weak storyline driven by its human stars, one that wildly veers from place to place with little coherent sense beyond needing to set the stage for another epic action sequence. It is here that King of the Monsters is at its weakest, and it’s a weakness that will be exacerbated by just how much you brought into the movie’s pre-release presentation as a monster movie with something to say.
Set five years after the events of Edwards’ Western reboot of the Godzilla cinematic opus, King of the Monsters takes place in a world that, while free of monstrous carnage since the fateful attacks of the original movie, is one that’s been forever changed. Monarch, the shadowy organization tasked with originally attempting to cover up Godzilla’s emergence (and now acts as the narrative thread unifying a cinematic franchise that’s already roped in King Kong for a future scrap) is now an all-powerful organization going toe-to-toe with the world’s militaries and governments as it researches and contains not just Godzilla’s presence on Earth, but dozens of other sleeping titans. But when a group of eco-terrorists swipes experimental Monarch technology to awaken the monsters buried beneath the Earth, the stage is set for an all-out battle royale between the likes of Toho icons Rodan, Mothra, and Ghidorah, as they all come face to face with the return of Godzilla himself.
While the basic narrative is propelled by the drama of Monarch’s scientist/black ops team—headed by Ken Watanabe’s Ishirō Serizawa, returning from 2014's Godzilla—trying to chase after the bafflingly well equipped eco-terrorist cell lead by Colonel Alan Jonah (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance, who clearly revels in being a comic book villain sick and tired of the idiot heroes chasing after him), King of the Monsters’ human heart is centered on the plight of the Russell family. Torn apart after the loss of their son in the background events of the 2014 movie, doctors Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) Russell find themselves on opposing sides over Godzilla’s place on the Earth. Despite their differences over whether or not the creature and his ilk should be killed or co-operated with, the two soon find themselves—alongside their young daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown)—caught in the middle after the technological MacGuffin they were working on as a way to communicate with Godzilla and his fellow monsters, the Orca, is swiped up in the globe-hopping quest to unleash a titanic do-over on the planet.
While the premise opens up some potentially interesting questions, the problem is that King of the Monsters almost immediately drops any pretense of the moral debate it sets up in its early moments in order to facilitate its (incredibly lovely-looking, at least) monster action. The human characters are paper-thin, and given very little to really do other than to look in either awe or horror at the action around them while occasionally spouting bland hoo-ah mannerisms. At their best they’re a boring facade for the monstrous stars to stomp around in front of, at worse they make increasingly bonkers decisions that feel like they serve only to facilitate the plot arriving at more monster mayhem, rather than because they actually feel like coherent choices ostensibly smart people (they are scientists, after all!) would make. Brown probably stands as out as the highlight of the human cast, but even then, as Madison she gets little more to do than either be frustrated by the adults around her in the wake of all-out-monster mania, or scream at said mania.
The flaws of King of the Monsters’ human side are exacerbated by a wildly inconsistent tone, too. The movie thunders along at a rapid pace thanks to its action, but it dances between wanting you to be horrified by the scope and cost of the monsters’ destruction, before asking you to laugh at something like Bradley Whitford’s Rick & Morty-ian scientist making some crude joke in the background seconds later. Entire threads and character arcs disappear from the film willy-nilly in order to chase the next big monster bash, especially as it draws to its explosive conclusion. It comes together to leave the feeling that King of the Monsters is little more than beautifully stunning sound and fury, sadly signifying nothing for its human stars—beyond them being a vector in which the movie can thickly spread on some b-movie cheese that lends the whole endeavor a sort of “classic monster movie with a modern budget” vibe.
King of the Monsters quickly reveals itself as not the movie its artful trailers sold you on, and arguably never seemingly was meant to be, but that’s fine. Indeed, plenty of Toho’s classic Godzilla movies have likewise been all about the simple joy of the explosive spectacle Godzilla and his titanic foes can unleash. But some of the very best have at least had things to say about topics like nuclear warfare, environmentalism, and Japanese nationalism beyond their monstrous action. King of the Monsters barely tries in its own attempts to add an ecological bent to the reasoning behind its clash of titans—turns out that we are the real monsters, after all—and almost unabashedly leans into knowing how little it has to try on that front, self-aware that you will clearly care as little as possible about the plight of its human characters when the alternative is more spectacular action.
Whether or not that is an unassailable dealbreaker or not will depend on how much you enjoy the cheap thrill of gorgeously rendered monster action. If you’re fine with some incredibly stupid people playing second fiddle to glorious kaiju moments, King of the Monsters will provide one of the best popcorn blockbusters of the summer. But if you wanted a Godzilla movie that had something, anything to say about its destruction? Then you’ll be definitely looking for something meatier than Ghidorah flank to chew on.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters hits theaters May 31.
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