Of all the cinematic universes that have popped up over the last few years, Warner Bros’ Monsterverse is the one I’ve been most invested in. I count Gareth Edwards’ 2014 ‘Godzilla’ as one of the best blockbusters of the decade, and even with its flaws, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ 2017 ‘Kong: Skull Island’ was much more fun than it had any right to be. While other franchises took themselves way too seriously, these films have embraced the ridiculousness of their premise, kept their tongues firmly in their cheeks, and never skimped in terms of craft (especially ‘Godzilla’). The latest instalment, Michael Dougherty’s ‘Godzilla II: King of the Monsters’, was on the list of films I was excited about this year, and I went in with high expectation. Just over two hours later, I left the cinema bemused, exhausted and thoroughly disappointed.
Where the previous films were fun, operatic, wonderfully nuts and beautifully staged, ‘King of the Monsters’ is a confused and thundering mess, a film that’s trying to do way too much and ultimately achieving nothing. It begins with the premise that Monarch, the cryptozoological bureau charged with monitoring the now-missing Godzilla, has located a number of monsters hibernating across the globe, and scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, ‘The Conjuring’ universe) has developed a machine that can subdue and control them. When Emma, her machine and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, Netflix's ‘Stranger Things’) go missing, Monarch calls in her ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler, ‘First Man’) to help them find her before whoever has kidnapped her starts waking the Titans from their sleep.
The problem is, from here on, the film delivers two hours of endless plot and exposition with little to no character development, the result of which is a confusing, exhausting film filled with characters you hardly have the energy to care about. So much happens in this film, so many sudden revelations or left turns, and the more they build up, the more it feels like a Jenga tower about to topple. Rather than delivering the plot through action or visual storytelling, it’s almost entirely relayed to us through speeches from the multitude of characters (most of which are never even named). The worst kind of dialogue is that which must serve as exposition, and this is exactly the kind co-writers Dougherty and Zach Shields heavily rely on.
This could maybe be forgiven if the giant monsters fighting each other was well-staged and appropriately cinematic, but the film fails even in this respect. Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ was criticised for having too little action and for taking too long for the reveal of Godzilla, but the manner in which ‘King of the Monsters’ tries to rectify this only results in the same problem. As well as Godzilla, the film also features his classic nemeses and allies Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah, and the film has to go through the awakening of all three. Where ‘Godzilla’ took its time building tension in the moments between action, much of this film consists of people staring in awe as another monster appears out of a mountain/glacier/waterfall/cloud/ocean and then stands around looking pissed off. Only three moments see genuine monster-on-monster brawling, but because we’ve been overexposed to them between those sequences, they either have no dramatic weight or just mix in with the rest of the mess of the film. This also renders almost all of the characters inert in the narrative until they come up with a fifth or sixth deus ex machina to try and save the day. There are moments of levity and humour, but mostly the film just takes itself very seriously, and because the plot is so confusing, the characters have no room for development. The monsters are overused and the action is poorly staged, so you inevitably feel every one of its 130 minutes. It’s big in all the wrong ways, loud in all the wrong ways and has no interest in celebrating how ridiculous it is.
It’s big in all the wrong ways, loud in all the wrong ways and has no interest in celebrating how ridiculous it is.
While Edwards and Vogt-Roberts found their feet with the large-canvas storytelling, injecting a well-versed cinematic language into their films, Dougherty never does the same, removing maybe the one thing that made these films stand out. There’s an assumption that scale amounts to the cinematic, but Dougherty’s handling of the convoluted plot and the size of its star monsters only adds to the confusion, never finding a through line or establishing any kind of visual consistency. Standard-issue cinematography and a run-of-the-mill score add to the mediocrity of the whole thing, made all the worse when compared to Seamus McGarvey’s incredible cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s rip-roaring score in the first film. The faults in the screenplay could have been overcome with a brave and steady hand, but they simply follow it as a roadmap without realising the problems on the route it’s taking them.
There’s basically nothing to be said about the performances other than that they are there. The film assembles a ridiculous cast - as well as Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown (whose character serves almost no purpose other than to do one thing at the end of the film), you have returning cast Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn joined by Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford, Ziyi Zhang, Thomas Middleditch, O'Shea Jackson Jr and Anthony Ramos. This cast is stacked - and yet the screenplay either gives them sketches of characters to work with, or makes no real use of them. They all do good work at staring in awe, but when you’ve watched them do it for an hour and a half, it gets a bit old.
‘Godzilla II: King of the Monsters’ promises to build on the great work already laid out for this franchise, mixing popcorn fun and thrilling craft, but instead it relinquishes all of that to be a predictably dull and plodding bore. It doesn’t even manage to be a fun, brainless monster movie, assuming that a satisfying monster battle is all about being big and loud and doing nothing else. We waited five years for the follow-up to ‘Godzilla’, which only makes this new film even more of a disappointment, and doesn't excuse the badly-written screenplay or the poorly-executed visual effects. With Dougherty handing the reigns over to horror director Adam Wingard for 2020’s ‘Godzilla vs Kong’, here’s hoping the Monsterverse finds its feet again.