By Jim Slotek
Effects guys have repeatedly explained to me about the “cheat” that’s been used for generations, setting scenes in the pouring rain, or at night, or both, to hide FX imperfections.
You can see it all the way back to the original 1954 Godzilla. But when Godzilla: King of the Monsters has you squinting at a dark IMAX screen for more than two hours like a Battle of Winterfell with behemoths, I’m thinking, “It’s 2019, folks. Can we lighten up?”
And I’m thinking it in more ways than one.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters – part of the MonsterVerse series whose last instalment was the King Kong film Kong: Skull Island - has plenty of plenty of opportunities for fun audience turns. There’s a mad (or at least delusional) scientist, who creates a device that can “talk” to monsters. There’s the cutest monster of all, Mothra, the Jigglypuff of the monster world. There are glimpses of Kong, the monster with the most personality.
And Boston’s Fenway Park is a battleground, with not a single Green Monster reference.
And through it all, in Hollywood’s decades-long insistence on remaking the Japanese Toho Godzilla films while seemingly rejecting their spirit, Godzilla: King of the Monsters seems bogged down in its own seriousness, awash in expositional dialogue before ever getting down to business (not counting a scene with a just-hatched caterpillar Mothra, it is 45 minutes before we see some real action with Godzilla’s woken nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah breaking through the Antarctic ice).
Set five years after the previous Godzilla, when, a TV reporter helpfully informs us, “the world learned monsters are real,” we play catch-up with Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), who are no longer a couple since the altruistic death of their son. Dad’s photographing wolves in the wild as therapy for having hit the bottle. Meanwhile, she’s begun tinkering with a long-ago project of theirs, a talk-to-the-animals machine called the Orca.
Overshadowing everything is the Monarch Project, which, as we’ve learned in the previous films, is a generations-old extra-governmental group created to keep tabs on prehistoric monsters called “Titans”. In modern times, they have facilities near the dormant Titans around the world (Antarctica for Ghidorah, a Mexican resort town for Rodan, China for Mothra, etc.).
Except a new group enters the picture in the opening act, a shadowy group of killers led by a paramilitary man named Col. Jonah (Charles Dance), who slaughter Monarch staff and kidnap Dr. Emma and her daughter AND the Orca.
Their motives are murky, but it soon becomes clear Dr. Emma’s intentions for the Orca are, well, deranged. She gives speech after speech (have I mentioned this is a very talky monster movie?) about why she thinks Titans should be released. None makes sense.
And though Farmiga has proven herself to be an actress capable of great restraint and subtlety, the one chance she gets to chew scenery proves this is the one arrow she doesn’t possess in her acting quiver. Mostly, she just looks confused.
So, there are shadowy groups killing shadowy groups, the U.S. military wasting bombs and missiles on monsters they know from experience will simply shrug them off – all by way of distraction when what we want to see is what the title promises, monsters fighting each other, in daylight preferably.
It’s a pretty solid cast – including David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe (as the main let-monsters-live voice) - the kind you hire to bring subtle gravitas. Though why an over-the-top end-of-the-world scenario needs extra gravitas is baffling.
I will give props to the last-act smackdown between Godzilla and Ghidorah, (though the smiles on the faces of characters when Godzilla arrives to save the day seem inappropriate, since the collateral carnage is as likely to kill them as a direct attack by a Titan).
In one of the funnier “sh—people say” spinoffs from this movie, blogger Jeffrey Wells opined that this Godzilla is too fat, prompting cries on social media of “body-shaming.”
I accept the onscreen explanation that this Godzilla is simply on atomic steroids. It’s the movie that’s fat.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty. Starring Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown. Opens wide Friday, May 31.