For a reboot that many felt was not needed, 2014’s Godzilla did a solid job of delivering high stakes drama and impressive visual effects. I mean, don’t expect to actually see much of Godzilla, so much as the chaos that both he and his rival MUTO wreak. Engaging performances by Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen grounded the drama, albeit centering it away from the eponymous character, and gave the drama enough high stakes for the audience to care about what happened next.
Godzilla: King of Monsters, on the other hand, shares none of its predecessor’s draw. It’s always a shame when a film with such a high budget, endless resources and good actors fails to keep me awake (for the record, I did stay awake, but only because I had to). The many problems of Godzilla II are rooted in the high stakes it sets. This has become all too common, for instance, in recent superhero movies. It’s what happens when saving the universe becomes too important to care about. In Godzilla, the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and Godzilla tear Hawaii, Las Vegas and San Francisco to pieces. The death toll is too high and the wreckage too vast to really take stock of (or to be upset about), but there are enough convincing moments to make you believe that director Gareth Edwards actually cares about the annihilation of the cities and its citizens. This really just means panning away from the leads and shifting their focus, for a brief moment, onto families and individuals who are just as affected by the mass destruction, but just a little more clueless as to its origin. But Godzilla II has almost none of these visual shifts. Instead of just Hawaii and the Bay Area being targets, the whole world is ablaze after monsters wake up from their deep slumber by the three-throated call of King Ghidorah, a flying monster with three heads. It’s hard to care about anyone when everyone is screwed.
Only a few actors carry over from the last movie and, to their credit, those that do get out early. The film begins five years after the end of part one, with a quick flashback to the devastation in San Francisco. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) holds the body of her dead son in her arms, while tears flow down her face and a wind machine off-camera tousles her hair into a dishevelled look. Grief never looked so glam. This brief image is supposed to set the stakes, but the film expects unmined grief to fuel its characters’ motives. We soon learn that Dr. Emma Russell has developed a device called the Orca, which can tune in to Godzilla and the Titans using bio-acoustics. Her estranged husband Mark (Kyle Chandler on auto-pilot) is trying to forget his grief through an unexplained foray into wildlife photography.
He is soon called onto the scene when Dr. Russell and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by villainous eco-terrorist Jonah Allan (Charles Dance). Unafraid of the Titans, he believes in their natural dominance over the planet and would be glad if they would be so kind as to exterminate the human race as punishment for our climate crisis. But the film’s environmental argument is half-baked. It can’t quite decide between reveling in the monsters’ grandiosity and the damage done or staying true to the Godzilla tradition of moralizing. After all, the first Godzilla was made in response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla Resurgence from 2016 adresses the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Perhaps Godzilla is too entrenched in Japanese culture for its politics to cross over in Hollywood? Unfortunately, natural disasters and bureaucratic sinkholes are universal.
There is a telling moment in the film when the destruction is at its peak, a miraculously still intact TV is broadcasting the events. A put-together news anchor calmly declares that, essentially, the entire world is on fire. If Godzilla is as much about the monster, as it is about how we react to it, then this snapshot is like something out of Black Mirror. Even amid global decimation, we will always have a pretty news anchor to report on it. ■
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is in theatres now. Watch the trailer here: