The Ars Technica braintrust of movie fans has no shortage of good, funny, silly, or enjoyably bad kaiju film recommendations. We love our share of stompy monster movies, whether they come in the form of surprisingly fun thrillers, quirky existential ruminations, or even awesome scenes inside of otherwise underwhelming popcorn flicks.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters will not be on our list of recommended ultra-monster films any time soon, if ever.
Instead, I’m holding out hope that this week’s sloppy, plodding, and logically bankrupt film eventually becomes the subject of a “how did this happen?” documentary, the kind that might explain why the film’s scriptwriters, director, and editors all seemed to abruptly quit working simultaneously.
Ecologically restorative radiation? Are y’all for serious?
[Warning: I go into plot-spoiler territory from here on out, in part to make you think twice about attending this film.]
For starters, G:KotM wastes no time testing your patience with flimsy plot devices.
In the five years since the events of 2014’s Godzilla film, an American dark-ops project, dubbed “Monarch,” has secretly been examining and even capturing massive monsters called “Titans” from all over the world. Monarch’s leaders decide the Titans must be kept alive in order to preserve harmony on the planet. Somehow, the organization has gotten a full budgetary sign-off to build and maintain more than a dozen classified underground lairs, even though the film opens with a congressional hearing alleging that they’re a waste of money.
“We must find ways to co-exist with the Titans,” Ishiro Serezawa (Ken Watanabe, reprising his 2014 role) says in response to a furrowed-brow panel of senators.
Emma Russell (played by Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air), a major Monarch researcher, doesn’t quite agree with Ishiro’s stance. For the first third of the film, we’re led to believe she’s passionate about establishing a peaceful bond with these Titans via her “Orca” device, which combines various animal and human howl frequencies to create an “alpha” noise that will make the massive Titans docile. After successfully testing this device on Mothra, Emma and her teen daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things) are apparently kidnapped in an early scene by a so-called “eco-terrorist” and led away by his armed goons.
Record-scratch time: a troop of roughly 20 armed guards somehow infiltrates one of Monarch’s ultra-classified mega-monster lairs (and many others as the film proceeds) with little more than semi-automatic rifles. If that’s all it takes to get access to the largest and most misunderstood monsters known to man, humanity deserves what’s coming to them.
Do what now?
By the time Emma’s estranged husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights), is tapped by Monarch to help them track his wife and daughter and stop this terrorist squad, we learn the truth: Emma’s been in cahoots with the terrorists the whole time. (Which doesn’t explain why Madison has been utterly scared and confused by being captured by these terrorists, but, whatever.) Emma delivers a passionless, matter-of-fact speech about how Monarch’s monsters must be loosed and allowed to wipe out major metropolitan centers, because the radiation spewed by the monsters is… ecologically restorative? Makes forests magically regrow wherever Godzilla and its peers have been stomping around? Sure. That’s science right there.
If you’re wondering: yes, Emma totally changes her tune by the end of the film when she starts seeing citizens die or suffer, including her daughter getting caught up in a Titan fight. This leads to the eco-terrorist Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) responding with the kind of “seriously?!” that makes you respect his character’s consistent, Thanos-like villainy.
Although, really, it’s never quite clear who we’re rooting for in this film. The eco-terrorists? They never present a cohesive thesis about why they’re investing time, money, and human lives into the mission of unleashing a bunch of monsters. Monarch? They clearly have no idea what they’re doing with this network of caged monsters, nor any idea what the solution is once the beasts all get out. Godzilla? The film’s main characters begin rooting for Godzilla to be the solution to their problems simply because they discover one hieroglyphic drawing of ancient people worshiping something in its image.
A real waste of a Green Monster
Many of you may not be surprised to learn that G:KotM has a cockamamie plot with logic holes big enough to drive a King Kong through. What if you just want to see Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, Rodan, and friends slap each other around, shoot lasers, and set off explosions?
The film’s 130-minute runtime includes a grand total of three fight sequences, and they’re all utter bummers. Remember, Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment have designs on a Kaiju Cinematic Universe, and the studios proved that they could produce a killer monster battle with the ending of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. But G:KotM‘s battles each cut corners with the bane of cheap action-movie cinema: erratic, shaky camera cuts to simulate, not reveal, brutal action. As a result, the weight and tension of a classic kaiju showdown never manifests, and Godzilla doesn’t come up with better ideas to make up for its heartbreaking lapse in battle design.
Worse, the one monster-on-monster fight that takes place in a real-world city, Boston, does not in any way use its real-world landmarks in compelling ways. Why doesn’t someone slam one of these green monsters into Fenway’s Green Monster? Or grab a giant monument like Bunker Hill and use it as a deadly implement? Or demolish the Wahlberg brothers’ Wahlburgers restaurants? Instead, most of the combat revolves around massive blasts of lightning, fire, or radiation, which conveniently fill the screen with distracting amounts of light so that the visual effects crew doesn’t have to render anything complicated, detailed, or compelling.
This may be why G:KotM‘s major action scenes happen with either open-sky backdrops or physical sets that look like they were carted out of Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple TV series.
Along the way to each fight, we’re left with an alarming lack of chemistry among all of the characters. Watanabe fires off a couple of stilted one-liners, but main star Chandler is frequently paired with Silicon Valley‘s Thomas Middleditch, who plays a very Silicon Valley-esque researcher, and these two actors seem to loathe each other in their every scene. Most of the film’s laughs instead come from disbelief.
Again: Do what now?
For example, here’s a baffling reveal that comes roughly 60 minutes in: Godzilla relies on a network of dozens of underground wormholes to swim across the entire planet, which Monarch has failed to disclose up until the point of world crisis for some reason (and thus leaves everyone confused and terrified when they lose track of Godzilla). Or there’s the fact that Madison disrupts the terrorists’ plot by stealing the most important device they own, left completely unguarded in a room with unlocked doors. And the US military’s best idea to take out the murderous, three-headed Ghidorah is to drop an “oxygen destroyer” bomb, which does nothing to the monster—and kills a roughly two-mile radius of marine life.
Also, two of the characters sacrifice themselves because they insist that they must stay behind to manually set off a bomb or distract a monster. In the case of the bomb, however, we watch its holder pilot a craft to a specific point, then place the bomb and… set a 60-second timer. A 60-second timer?! Why can’t you maybe wind the clock back another 180 seconds and keep pace with your allies, who are seriously not moving that much faster beyond the blast radius? The other sacrifice plays just as sloppily and unnecessarily, and the only saving grace for both of these scenes is that they guarantee the affected actors won’t have to come back to this franchise.
The loser of Godzilla vs. Anything: us
I did not have a good time watching, thinking about, or writing about this film. G:KotM is easily one of the worst films I have ever seen in terms of what I hope for from action films in general, let alone films that either abide by or blow up the kaiju-film archetype. My hopes for next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong weren’t all that high to begin with, but as far as I’m concerned, someone else at Ars can review that one. That’s how little I want to do with this series after G:KotM wasted my time and tested my patience so severely.