The first thing to remember when reviewing a giant monster movie is that it’s really freaking hard to make a giant monster movie. Sure, massive creatures stomping through cities are inherently cinematic, but unless you’re making a coffee table book, that ain’t enough on its own. You need some human drama to carry the thing through. That’s a tricky thing to do when the focus is on the behemoths. There are a few successful approaches, of course. Like the classic Universal monster movies, the original Godzilla gets a lot of mileage out of the allegorical aspects. It deals with the grief and trauma from Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s destruction less than a decade before — a lot of the arguments about whether they should study the creature or destroy it stem from the discussions about the use of nuclear energy at the time. You can make it a family melodrama (most of the Godzilla and Gamera movies). You can make the monster a straight-up Macguffin for an unrelated plot (Larry Cohen’s exceptional Q: The Winged Serpent). You can even make it a sports movie (Pacific Rim). Still, despite the plethora of giant monster flicks out there, you can probably count the good ones on two clawed hands.
Not only that, but like any franchise, the Godzilla franchise is almost impossible to evaluate by regular standards. It’s like the James Bond franchise, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — there are a few genuinely classic films in there that stand on their own (Casino Royale, Iron Man), but for the most part, you have to evaluate them in the context of their film family. It’s hard to argue that something like The Living Daylights is a great movie in comparison to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s still a damn fun Bond flick. Similarly, most of the Godzilla movies are terrible: boring, overly long, with wooden characters and nonsensical plots. The monster stomping is always fun, but even then, it can get repetitive. I recently tried showing even some of the better ones (Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah 1993, Destroy All Monsters) to my S.O. and we fell asleep in the middle of both. I still love those movies, but the Godfather they ain’t. They’re popcorn fun.
That brings us to Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), an unabashed love letter to the Godzilla franchise. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty came into the project having co-written the exemplary superhero flick X2 and written/directed modern-day classic horror anthology Trick r’ Treat and less-classic-but-still-fun Krampus. He’s a man who, at least based on his previous efforts, understands both genre and story — important when handling a film whose genre has been so well-established. G: KOTM feels like an attempt to update classic Godzilla movies from rubber-suited schlockfests into a Hollywood megabudget blockbuster while still retaining everything that made those movies so enduring. And for the most part, Dougherty and his co-creators succeed.
In some cases, spectacularly so! The hardest part of any giant monster movie is making you care about the giant monster fights. Sure, it’s fun to watch two enormous creatures pounding on each other and wrecking cities, but after a while it just becomes noise. It’s hard to get emotionally invested in Godzilla when he’s basically invulnerable. You need to get the people in there so you can worry about them. The Gamera: Guardian of the Universe trilogy from the 90s (probably still the best kaiju movies ever made) had a novel way of handling it: they had a young girl who was psychically linked to Gamera, so whenever Gamera took damage, she took damage as well. That added real stakes to the fights — you wanted Gamera to win, but also for the girl to not get hurt. In this case, they do a great job of putting the human protagonists literally underfoot as the colossi battle. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch to get them there. Still, the movie does a solid job of keeping the humans present and engaged for much of the action.
The humans are a bit thinly drawn, sure, but that’s pretty par for the course with these movies. They do a solid job of establishing what everyone wants and their personalities, so even though there are a few too many of them running around, you know who they are and what their deal is. Some of the plans are (very) silly, especially on the bad guy side — but you know what? They are no more silly than, say, the bad guys being aliens who pose as humans from the future to get people to go back in time to stop proto-Godzilla from getting hit with an atom bomb while at the same time leaving baby Ghidorah-lings to get hit instead so they can turn into King Ghidorah and allow the aliens to take over the earth in the future. THAT’S A REAL GODZILLA PLOT. FROM THE NINETIES. Like I said, context. It is a bit silly that one of the bad guy’s turns comes from SPOILER only wanting to have destroyed the Earth a little bit instead of all the way, but so be it. On this large a scale, it’s fine. Plus it perfectly illustrates its theme: history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.
My favorite criticism I’ve seen in reviews is the “IT’S BIG AND LOUD AND INCOMPREHENSIBLE.” It’s 2019. Michael Bay innoculated us to this shit years ago. The CG is fine, if sometimes obvious (there are some definite rear-projection vibes when the humans are in the same shots as the monster battles). Dougherty stages the action to provide some iconic shots, and while I will grant some of the editing can make things confusing at times (especially during the Antarctica sequence), it’s certainly not difficult to follow the action most of the time. Yes, it is big and loud and strains scientific credibility. But who cares? It’s a giant monster movie. In the context of the genre, and specifically the Godzilla series, it’s a miracle that it keeps the story engaging for over two hours and provides lots and lots of motivated monster-on-monster action. Most of the classics don’t even do that. The old movies feature interminable human drama with a couple brawls until the last thirty minutes or so.
The dialogue is super cheesy, I’ll grant that.
Is Godzilla: King of the Monsters a great movie? Probably not. There are too many characters — none of whom are exactly great dramatic figures for the ages — and there’s a lot of heavy lifting to set up future installments of the franchise. Is it a great Godzilla movie? Hell yeah it is. It gives you everything you’d want from a huge budget kaiju movie — big time.