Five years after the incident in San Francisco, Godzilla has disappeared from view, if not the public consciousness. While the US government considers military action against Godzilla and the other monstrous “Titans”, the secretive Monarch organisation continues its research into the newly-discovered giant creatures. When a vital piece of their experimental equipment is stolen by an eco-terrorist and more monsters are awakened, the race is on to retrieve the device and prevent an international catastrophe.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a direct sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot, which reintroduced Toho’s cinematic icon to an international audience. This time Michael Dougherty is in the director’s chair, and Godzilla is joined by some other classic “kaiju” characters that now feature as part of a new “Monsterverse” franchise.
While a connection between Godzilla and the newest iteration of King Kong (as he is portrayed in Kong: Skull Island) is only alluded to, there is a sense of continuity in that several (human) characters from the 2014 Godzilla movie reprise their roles and Monarch are placed centre-stage. A conscious effort is also made to appeal to a broader, more international, audience by placing the action in locations as far-flung as China, Mexico, the USA and even Antarctica.
Quite how well the “Monsterverse” succeeds remains to be seen, but it’s great that the likes of Mothra, Rodan and King Gidorah are being lifted out of cult obscurity and into mainstream international cinema. Godzilla was lovingly brought back in Hideaki Anno’s recent Shin Godzilla and Edwards’ 2014 film helped us forget Roland Emmerich’s 1998 effort once and for all, but the other Toho monster films are rather dated and difficult to obtain outside of Japan.
Aside from the up-to-date CG and cheeky one-liners popularised by the MCU superhero films of the past decade, this does still feel like a monster B-movie from an earlier time, which doesn’t put it in a very good position when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other summer blockbusters that are vying for attention at your local multiplex in 2019.
Although it is undemanding popcorn entertainment in some ways, the cast face an uphill struggle to deliver a ropey script, and the visually impressive set-pieces can’t completely hide the clumsy story line and numerous plot holes. The motives of certain characters are so poorly explained that they undermine the logic that underpins them; the likes of Ken Watanabe and Millie Bobby Brown are outstanding, but overall they're fighting a valiant yet futile battle to make the human element convincing or memorable.
A crucial ingredient to a Godzilla movie is the socio-political commentary (something that Anno's 2016 version did with gusto), but despite being released at a time when environmental issues are enjoying an unprecedented high public profile, the ecological message falls strangely flat here. There are other little Easter eggs though that pay affectionate homage to its pedigree (look out for Zhang Ziyi and her family photos), which will give existing fans something extra to latch on to, perhaps at the expense of newcomers. The “Oxygen Destroyer” weapon for instance is an obvious call-back to the original Godzilla, although today’s audiences might not be able to suspend their disbelief at the nonsensical science in the same way that their 1954 contemporaries might have done.
Other stylistic choices fare much better though: Bear McCreary’s score draws direct inspiration from Akira Ifukube’s and Yuuji Kouseki’s old soundtracks, which are effective in this context but also possess that extra level of significance and spine-tingling nostalgia to long-standing fans. The creature designs are also given impressive updates while retaining the spirit of the originals: Godzilla is suitably reptilian and majestic, King Gidorah is alien and menacing, Rodan makes an unexpected yet exciting appearance and Mothra is, quite frankly, stunning. I personally thought that Edwards’ effort was pretty respectable, but it didn’t devote much screen time for its titular hero; for all its faults, Godzilla: King of the Monsters does at least give us our money’s worth in terms of how much we see of the monsters themselves right from the opening scenes, and they really do look spectacular.
Critics are quite right to lament over the waste of good acting talent and the moral messages that are self-contradictory to the point of utter incoherence, but in all honesty some of us will be too excited at the sight of Godzilla, King Gidorah and Mothra to care…after all, who goes to see a kaiju movie to watch the people? The “definitive” Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla that pitches its human, monster and philosophical aspects just right still eludes us, but this outing is nevertheless an absolute riot while it lasts.