erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The only interesting thing about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is its stupidity. That’s what kept me hanging around: How stupid could it get? Answer: Really stupid. Godzilla and Monster Zero may be gigantic, but the stupidity of this movie is even more gigantic. It fills the screen. It’s so vast you can’t see from one end to the next. It roars.

Remember how in the 2014 “Godzilla” movie, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character kept winding up in the thick of things? Like he was in Japan and the monsters were there, and then he went to Hawaii and the monsters were there. In the desert of the American Southwest? Yep. All the way to San Francisco, where his wife and kid were fighting for survival, and where Godzilla finally defeated the other monsters, the MUTOs, and then disappeared beneath the surf with a hiss. One of my favorite parts—because it’s so stupid—is the news coverage, particularly the most far-sighted chyron in the history of television. It doesn’t read: “Holy shit! Dinosaurs are alive and destroying our cities!” It anticipates the title of the sequel: “King of the Monsters: Savoir of Our City?” It anoints and cheers on a giant, fire-breathing lizard.

Remember all that? Well, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t in this one.

Instead, we get a different family to foreground all the monster battles. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is a kind of scientist, or techie, or something, while her husband, Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) ... um ... takes nature photos? And gets really angry at people who are trying to help? The two have a daughter, Madison, played by Millie Bobby Brown, who’s cashing the check she wrote for her good work in “Stranger Things.” Oh, Millie. Surely there were better banks.

Our lizard overlord
“King of the Monsters” opens with the Russell family’s flashbacks to San Francisco 2014, where they lost a son. Five years later, no one’s gotten over it. At one point, Dr. Russell, the angry male version, explains it all to Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), in one of the thinnest bits of exposition rendered on film:

About three years ago, we went back home to Boston. Tried to put the pieces back together. Emma dealt with it by doubling down on saving the world. And I started drinking.

Ah. So that’s why you were taking nature photos of wolves devouring a deer in Colorado. That’s where alcoholism always leads.

As for that “saving the world” thing mom doubled down on? Apparently she created a small device, dubbed ORCA, that can communicate with and/or control the monsters. We see her beta-test the thing as Mothra emerges from its pupa stage in a military-scientific outpost in Yunnan, China. She doesn’t even set it up beforehand, just barges into the enclosure and turns it on and starts fiddling with dials—while Mothra, who’s already killed several dudes, is like 20 feet away. But it works; Mothra is calmed. Then a paramilitary group barges in and starts killing more dudes. They kidnap Dr. Russell, her daughter, and the ORCA.

That’s when the good guys pick up angry Dr. Russell in a field in Colorado. So he can get on screen and not help.

You see, despite that five-year-old chyron welcoming our lizard overlord, we haven’t agreed on what to do in a world with monsters. Destroy them? Communicate and coexist with them? There are also those who think we’re the problem and the monsters the solution. That paramilitary group? They’re “eco-terrorists,” led by Alan Jonah, played by Charles Dance, who also played Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones.” This is their credo:

Our world is changing. The mass extinction we feared has already begun. And we are the cause. We are the infection. But like all living organisms, the earth unleashed a fever to fight this infection: Its original and rightful rulers—the Titans.

A few things. First, isn’t it amazing how so-called liberal Hollywood can talk about global warming without once mentioning global warming? To top it off, they make environmentalists the villains in all this? And the leader of this eco movement is supposedly Tywin Lannister—who would never give a rat's ass about anyone but himself?

He’s not the one making the above speech, by the way. That’s Emma. Yeah, she wasn’t kidnapped. She’s the bad guy—or in league with the bad guys. It’s our early, nonsensical reveal. You’d think a woman who lost her son to monsters wouldn’t think monsters were the solution to anything, let alone not-global warming, but nobody raises this point with her. They raise other, more personal points:

Mark: You are out of your goddamn mind! First, you put our daughter’s life in danger and now you get to decide the fate of the world. That’s rich, Emma!

That’s rich. It’s like they’re arguing about who flirted with whom at a cocktail party.

Since tentpoles movies are all about the roller-coaster ride, it’s time to zip around the globe some more. First Antarctica, where Emma frees Monster Zero, a giant three-headed dragon encased in ice. Except, oops, it’s not really a Titan. It’s an alien. (From Planet X, yo.) And it kicks Godzilla’s ass. Then Emma awakens Rodan from a volcano in Mexico, and there’s more battles, but the U.S. military uses an oxygen-depriving bomb to stop and/or kill the beasts. It works—on everyone but Monster Zero (he’s an alien), so he’s now the ruler, and awakens all the other Titans to, I guess, take over the world.  Meanwhile, Godzilla nurses his wounds. At this point, in fights with Zero, Godzilla's 0-2. Not exactly “king.”

The final battle is in Boston. That’s where Madison turns on mom (“You’re a monster”) and steals the ORCA, and goes to Fenway Park (of course) to ... what is she doing again? Calming the Titans? Because she winds up attracting them. To Boston. Brilliant.

And all of this awakens in mom the need to finally do the right thing. Like just when Madison can’t run anymore, Mom pulls up in a military vehicle and shouts “Get in!” That idiocy. The movie, directed by Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”), who also wrote a lot of it, wants us to care about the Russells, but how can we? Mom causes the death of probably millions because she thinks giant lizards and moths are wiser than we are. Dad fulminates against any course of action, while Daughter acts too late and then destroys Fenway Park. Those are our heroes.

Ancient Chinese secret
Gotta say: The cast is great but the casting is horrendous. It’s casting as shorthand. Everyone is who you think they are. “West Wing” dude says sardonic shit while drinking coffee, “Silicon Valley” tech dude stammers awkwardly, “Game of Thrones” dude is cuttingly brutal. Ice Cube’s son scowls and stands his ground, as does the bald black chick. They protect us. As does the “Hamilton” dude who stays in the background—as he did in “A Star is Born.” We learn nothing about these characters because there’s nothing to learn. They’re plug-ins.

Ken Watanabe, repping Japan, Godzilla’s original hunting grounds, spends the movie advocating for him. Zhang Ziyi, repping China, Warner Bros.’ box-office hunting grounds, spends the movie ... Yeah, what is her role? And isn’t it roles plural? Yes. She’s both Dr. Ilene Chen and Dr. Ling Chen. At one point she says she, or they, are third-generation Monarch. Meaning her/their parents/grandparents were involved in this international scientific project around the time of, oh, the virulently anti-western, anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution. Thanks for the history lesson. 

I do like it that when Mark talks up slaying dragons, Chen dismisses it as a western concept: “In the East, they are sacred: divine creatures who brought wisdom, strength. Even redemption.” OK, so her dialogue could’ve been better. No Chinese person says “In the east.” It’s fucking 中国. And why not talk up the dragon being the luckiest of the zodiac signs, or dragon dances and boat races, or how Bruce Lee’s Chinese name is 小龍, (Small Dragon), and Jackie Chan’s is 龍, (Dragon)? Have fun with it.

At least that conversation isn’t as soul-crushingly stupid as when Dr. Serizawa imparts his wisdom to Coach Taylor:

Dr. Serizawa: There are some things beyond our understanding, Mark. We must accept them and learn from them. Because these moments of crisis are also potential moments of faith. A time when we either come together or fall apart. Nature always has a way of balancing itself. The only question is: What part will we play?

Mark (impressed): Did you just make that up?

Dr. Serizawa: No. I read it in a fortune cookie once.

[Pause]

Dr. Serizawa: A really long fortune cookie.

The wisdom is bad enough—bland nothingness—but the fortune cookie reference? I can’t even unpack that. Why would his character say it? And why would a modern international movie have him say it? It’s like a line out of a 1970s commercial. “Ancient Chinese secret...” And does the movie not know he’s Japanese rather than Chinese, or does the movie think we don’t know this? Or does he assume Mark doesn't know? I’d love to hear if anyone at Warner Bros. suggested taking out this line. I’d love to hear what argument kept it in. 

This is Warner's second attempt to create a universe in the manner of the hugely successful MCU. The first included the most famous superheroes in the world—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—and they fucked it up. They gave the keys to Zack Snyder and he brought back pure idiocy. Now they’re trying to create a “Monsterverse” with King Kong, Godzilla, and the lesser Japanese monsters. They’re fucking this up, too.

YEAR MOVIE ROTTEN TOMATOES US BOX OFFICE WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE
2014 Godzilla 75% $200.6 $529.1
2017 Kong: Skull Island 75% $168.0 $566.7
2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters 41% $110.5 $385.9

The only improvement with any of it was the slight uptick in “Kong”’s worldwide numbers. Otherwise, it's down down down. We’re getting less interested as the movies are getting worse. Hey, maybe there’s a correlation.

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Posted at 07:26 AM on Thu. Sep 05, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019  
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