Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a sequel to both the 2014 reboot of Godzilla and 2017’s Vietnam-era King Kong reimagining Kong: Skull Island, with the films nominally tied together by the presence of the vaguely defined giant monster research organization Monarch. While it was a major presence in Kong: Skull Island, Monarch didn’t really figure into Godzilla until the last 15 minutes, though that’s the only part of that dreary, boring slog of a movie that anyone generally remembers. In any case, Monarch’s purview isn’t exactly complicated: They’re S.H.I.E.L.D. but for giant monsters instead of superheroes and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (aka “Let Them Fight” Guy) is a member.
The decision to relaunch a new Godzilla-based Monster Universe movie franchise was not exactly the worst bet — the Japanese original headlined upwards of 30 films since 1954. Kicking that continuum off with a glum, dreary bore of a feature, however, was baffling and disappointing. Godzilla kept its main attraction offscreen for most of the runtime and pulled a bait and switch on audiences regarding the screentime of top-billed star Bryan Cranston. Yes, every scholar of sci-fi cinema knows that the original 1954 Gojira was a pitch dark Atomic Age parable that used a giant monster as metaphor for grappling with the literal and figurative fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla fans will also happily remind you that the films made after that are mainly varying flavors of big fun Kaiju (i.e. giant monster) romps occasionally accompanied by even darker entries like Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and cultural commentary and pop satire vehicles like Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla.
Whatever excitement “Monsterverse” Godzilla failed to generate, it at least featured an awe-inspiring realization of the title character himself. Kong: Skull Island’s polar-opposite approach, embracing a go-for-broke retro pulp vibe that had more in common with campy 1970s Doug McClure vehicles like The Land That Time Forgot, did a lot to revitalize the nascent franchise. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has found the comfortable center between the two and finally realizes its central figure’s true potential. This is an extravaganza where the monsters themselves take center stage. The film is directed, framed, and scored with the epic grandeur and thundering portent of a soaring classical opera about gods and heroes. It’s also not afraid to be every bit as silly as classical opera.
Set a few years after the events of the 2014 film, King of the Monsters pairs Godzilla with a whole gaggle of globally impactful mayhem-making monsters, the majority of whom are initially hibernating in secret underground locations monitored by Monarch. As the film opens, the world’s governments believe they should just blow up all the giant monsters while they can because of how damn destructive the conscious ones already are. Monarch, however, is operating under the theory that the creatures (including Godzilla) are not simply “monsters” but Titans, the original prehistoric gods worshipped by whatever ancestral proto-civilization all humanity descended from. While some of them might be evil, others might be “on our side” and here to help us like the gods of legend.
This debate is complicated by a third faction of militant eco-terrorists, who believe that the return of the Titans is essentially Earth’s version of a white blood cell rush to cure its human infection. They plan to speed things along by kidnapping Monarch-aligned scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and forcing her to use her one of a kind “Titan Dog Whistle” technology to wake up the most powerful bad one: Monster Zero. The ensuing rush to stop and then respond to this threat ultimately draws the attention of Emma’s estranged husband Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), a whole crew of Monarch scientists and soldiers who now have their own not-Helicarrier full of toys to follow the surprisingly mobile mountain-sized stars around the world, literal-wingman Titans Rodan and Mothra, and, of course, Godzilla.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a transcendent, elevating, purely cinematic experience.
If that sounds like an extremely silly setup for a movie, it is. It’s also just the first act. With that action capped by a major plot twist, Godzilla: King of the Monsters gets down to delivering giant monster drama on a scale never before seen, with the action rendered in the most vivid and awesome detail possible. There isn’t a single frame of monster fighting that doesn’t look ready for a poster print. Three-headed dragons annihilating entire cities with lightning; flaming monster birds erupting from volcanoes; Mothra hovering in shafts of light like an insectine angel; Godzilla charging into battle flanked by a squad of fighter jets. These sights have all the madcap yet completely sincere energy of something that was storyboarded by a child. That’s as it should be.
This is, without a doubt, the big budget Godzilla movie that I used to dream about getting as a kid and never thought I would. I almost can’t even be objective about it. As a vessel for sheer spectacle, it’s just that good. It’s also elevated by solid filmmaking craftsmanship and sharp narrative cleverness. The performances are very good, with Watanabe once again being the standout thanks to all his weighty gravitas scenes. Ziyi Zhang plays a kind of walking Easter Egg for hardcore Godzilla fans, a role that feels like setup for future sequels. Chandler is the ideal guy for the regular dude and audience POV character role and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown shines as his daughter.
The direction by former low-budget horror auteur Mike Dougherty is absolutely jaw-dropping, a career transition on par with Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson’s jumps to the blockbuster A-list at the turn of the century. His screenplay with Zach Shields hits the perfect balance of big ridiculous pulp sci-fi nonsense and epic clash of gods power the material demands. Bear McCreary’s score masterfully remixes the original Akira Ifukube themes into powerful new arrangements.
Are there more details and technical nuance I could delve into? Sure, but what no academic analysis can convey is that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a transcendent, elevating, purely cinematic experience. It’s The Avengers for giant monster movies: a perfect distillation of why its entire genre exists in the first place and why we go to the movies.