The biggest fan complaint about 2014’s Godzilla reboot was that it didn’t feature enough Godzilla, and the new sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, seems determined to remedy that by showing the giant lizard within the first minute of the movie. But Godzilla then goes into hiding for nearly 45 minutes while the one-dimensional human characters set the plot in motion, teasing a battle royale among numerous massive monsters that never quite materializes. There is more consistent monster action in King of the Monsters than there was in its predecessor, but there’s very little of the elegance and sophistication that director Gareth Edwards brought to the 2014 film. The monster battles aren’t worth much if they’re murky, indistinguishable smudges of CGI.
Before director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (known for snarky cult horror movies Trick ’r Treat and Krampus) gets to those battles, he goes through the motions of establishing human characters who are meant to hold the audience’s sympathy (or at least their attention). Here, that’s estranged couple Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), two scientists and former colleagues at Monarch, the secretive monster-hunting organization that has become the backbone of Legendary’s so-called MonsterVerse (encompassing the Godzilla and King Kong movies). After losing their son in Godzilla’s 2014 attack on San Francisco, the Russells have taken separate paths, with Mark off studying wolves while Emma continues working for Monarch.
Emma has developed a machine that can control (or at least distract) the creatures known as “titans” who’ve been emerging since Godzilla’s first appearance, and along with her reluctant daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), she joins up with an opportunistic eco-terrorist (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) to unleash the titans on the world. There’s some vague justification about cleansing the planet of the damage that humans have done, but it’s really just an excuse to get a bunch of monsters to mess each other up. That includes reimagined versions of Godzilla series staples Rodan, Mothra and Ghidorah, along with some new creations (and some distracting hints about future appearances from King Kong himself).
David Strathairn (as an anti-Godzilla military commander), Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (as Monarch scientists) reprise their roles from the previous movie, but only Watanabe gets any significant screen time, and the focus of the human story is firmly on the Russells’ boring family drama. The plans for stopping and/or helping the monsters get increasingly convoluted as the movie goes on, and Dougherty throws together a constant stream of cardboard characters who add very little to the narrative. The overqualified cast (also including Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Zhang Ziyi and others) do what they can with the terrible dialogue, but Dougherty and his co-writers give them very little to work with. There are far more scenes of people standing around in control rooms, staring at monitors and yelling, than there are actual action sequences.
When the monsters do clash, it’s always under cover of darkness, in rain or snow or smoke, so that all of their moves are obscured. At least when Godzilla and his friends were played by guys in rubber suits, they could fight each other in broad daylight. When it’s clear enough to make out, the CGI monster design is impressively detailed, and the brain trust at Legendary has clearly put a lot of effort into developing the MonsterVerse. But when the end-credits sequence of world-building news headlines is more exciting than the preceding two-plus hours of action, you have to wonder about the creators’ priorities.