Godzilla: King of the Monsters ★★★

In hindsight I should have been more careful about what I wished for. The notion of a bunch of monsters reawakening from hibernation to fight it out for domination over the world is by no means a novelty (this is apparently the 35th film in the franchise). But when it’s done well and the promise of carnage was what you signed up for when you purchased a ticket, there’s much fun to be had. Instead, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” opted for a solemn, destructive approach. It’s painted with bleak colors and presented like a parable for the dire repercussions mankind might face a few decades from now should our hurting planet decide to go into full mutiny against its inhabitants. That the Titans, the scariest legendary Pokémon ever conceived, are thinly veiled manifestations of climate change and ecological disaster shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Yes, it sure does get pretty wild whenever they try to disintegrate each other with their radioactive fire beams and the enormity of the threat they pose is practically suffocating, but the emotional investment we as viewers are motivated to have in this is minimal.

Director Michael Dougherty and his team of writers recognized that there was a real danger of a lack of interest in their extravagant monster wrestling matches without a tangible human element to underpin the devastation. He said as much in interviews. As a result, they vastly overcompensated by throwing in a large ensemble of renowned actors who not only all fall well short of their abilities, but are given frustratingly little to do to bolster the core story of the planet getting ravaged by primordial creatures. Not to mention that it’s hard to keep track of everyone. Exhibit A, I didn’t even realize until the film was over that Zhang Ziyi was playing a set of twins, rather than one single character.

Bottom line, the film is spread incredibly thin, in spite of a 2 ½ hour running time. There are just too many threats going on simultaneously, including a well-trained group of eco-terrorists lead by Charles Dance, whose stated goal as an organization is to return balance to nature. Which is in effect the mission statement of every single ecological group ever founded. What he’s actually doing of course is let seventeen monstrosities lose upon mankind for no reason whatsoever except that he is plainly a lunatic. And a major twist is divulged and then elaborated on in a painfully awkward video in which the defector in question meticulously spells out their motivations in a flat, dispassionate tone, along with some conveniently prepared graphics and simulations accompanying them on the screen. It’s a wooden and, even more irritatingly, lazy technique for getting important information across to the audience.

The action scenes are done well, no doubt. Especially compared to the jumpy, rapid editing in the DC Universe fare, to point at the guiltiest culprit that springs to mind, which makes it impossible sometimes to follow along. There’s a commendable awareness of scale here considering that we are dealing with giants fighting it out and humans desperately trying to flee in the same frame. That is especially true for the two scenes depicting the resurrections of the three-headed apex predator Ghidorah and the pre-historic bird Rodan, the former from a block of ice in Antarctica and the latter a volcano in Mexico. These moments of horror are palpable, because the film does its best to hammer home how powerless mankind is against such vicious forces reclaiming their home.

I was also quite fascinated by the mythology behind the roles of these beings in ancient history, long before the oldest civilizations known to mankind began to emerge. Which makes this more of a parallel universe I suppose than an actual representation of our world as it is. The film offers a modernization of the concepts presented in the works of Jules Verne, with submarine tunnels all through the hollow earth, sunken cities and ancient beasts having survived far away from preying eyes, but capable of snatching back control if provoked. So unlike “Godzilla” in 2014, which had both dull characters and lackluster monster fights, they at least nailed the latter this time around. That’s progress.