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Dustin Putman

Godzilla: King of the Monsters  (2019)
2 Stars
Directed by Michael Dougherty.
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Ziyi Zhang, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, David Strathairn, Aisha Hinds, CCH Pounder, Anthony Ramos, Elizabeth Ludlow, Jonathan Howard, Alexandra Rachael Rabe.
2019 – 131 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and destruction, and for some language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 23, 2019.
Viewers who complained there was not enough monster mayhem in 2014's "Godzilla" get their wish in "Godzilla: King of the Monsters." The trade-off, alas, is a sequel altogether busier, more bombastic, and decidedly less personal. In its best moments, director Gareth Edwards' predecessor approached the haunting, exhilarating heights of awe and suspense found in 1993's "Jurassic Park." Even as the picture methodically took its time, it retained an enrapturing vision which ultimately paid off in spades. This follow-up, directed by the talented Michael Dougherty (2015's "Krampus") and co-written by Dougherty & Zach Shields, shaves away the previous film's sense of intimacy and tightly wound tension in exchange for two-plus hours of militaristic maneuvering and increasingly wearisome fire and brimstone. The creatures no longer carry with them an aura of daunting mystery; they are right there, front and center, in an unsubtle, less textured, less imaginative onslaught of CG-centric action.

Coexistence vs. extinction. It's the quandary faced by cryptozoological organization Monarch, who sees giant unearthed titan Godzilla as a possible savior for mankind against the wrath of other ancient adversaries lying in wait beneath the Earth's surface. When Monarch paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and 13-year-old daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are taken hostage by eco-terrorist Col. Jonah Allen (Charles Dance) and transported to an Antarctic outpost where Monster Zero—the three-headed King Ghidorah—is being studied within a block of ice, their estranged husband and father, animal behaviorist and former Monarch specialist Mark (Kyle Chandler), joins forces with the agency to rescue them. Not all, however, is quite as it seems, with the broken Russell family—who tragically lost their son, Andrew, five years ago during the destructive San Francisco creature invasion—taking different sides in the debate over whether unleashing these monsters could ultimately save the planet from ecological collapse or mark the very end of civilization.

Restraint is in short supply in "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," a more-is-less enterprise rushing from moment to moment with little care to logistics, coherence, or even storytelling fluidity (full cities are glimpsed in their apocalyptic aftermath with little to no concern for how they got that way or what has become of their populations). If precursor "Godzilla" was a fantastical thriller nonetheless anchored in what felt like the real world, this continuation strikes as pure fantasy that happens to take place on Earth. It also feels like a direct reaction to the small but vocal naysayers who claimed there wasn't enough of the title character in the earlier picture. While Godzilla remains a supporting (albeit pivotal) player here, the incorporation of King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra ensures this is a titan bonanza. Certainly, there are extravagant visuals within, head-spinningly majestic effects work, and superb creature designs. What there isn't is any sense of warmth, wonder or genuine thrills. Onscreen chaos does not equate to viewer involvement, and what was once nerve-jangling and broodingly riveting in the former film now simply comes off as overbearing and decidedly detached.

Uniformly strong actors are at the mercy of thankless roles in the often dopey screenplay, with only Kyle Chandler (2018's "First Man"), Vera Farmiga (2016's "The Conjuring 2") and Millie Bobby Brown (Netflix's "Stranger Things") given anything of note to munch on (sole carryovers Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn are treated as afterthoughts). As Mark and Emma Russell, Chandler and Farmiga ably exhibit the pain and grief of losing a child, both believing they are doing the right thing while staunchly standing at a divide on how to protect the planet. That they achieve this is particularly impressive considering so little time or attention is dedicated to it. Mostly, they, too, are pawns in a production so big it threatens to swallow them whole. The best performance comes from Brown, capturing the apprehension, astonishment, and confusion of a child caught between parents in crisis and worldwide cataclysms. One of the few emotionally resonant moments in the film is a devastating question Brown's Madison poses to her mom, casting everything Emma has been fighting for in a new consequential light. More attention to the people in the story who stand to lose everything rather than empty disaster spectacle might have made all the difference.

Director Michael Dougherty, a master of crafting darkly whimsical tales, could have used a little more of that magic touch while developing "Godzilla: King of the Monsters." In interviews, he has likened this film to James Cameron's action-oriented "Aliens" and Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla" to Ridley Scott's scarier, more deliberate "Alien." It's a comparison that makes a lot of sense, with one exception: "Aliens" might have been working on a grander scale, but its solid screenplay still kept Sigourney Weaver's Ripley as its focal point while devising a host of rousing, edge-of-one's-seat sequences. Considering the sheer quantity of creature battles here (most of which aren't given the chance to properly play out without getting interrupted by the other twenty things going on at the same time), it is telling that none come close to approaching the crowd-pleasing satisfaction of the gangbusters San Francisco-set fight during the third act of "Godzilla." After a while, its repetitive cinematic fireworks begin to forgettably blend together. "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" loses its way by trying to do too much and, consequently, not doing enough, gravely assuming loud noises, freneticism, and lots of crashing and bashing is all audiences need to get their money's worth. Without making us care, though, what's the point?
© 2019 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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