Godzilla: King of the Monsters

(2019) ** 1/2 Pg-13
132 min. Warner Bros. Director: Michael Dougherty. Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Ziyi Zhang.

/content/films/5163/2.jpgThe new American film Godzilla: King of the Monsters honors a tradition that has won millions of fans over sixty years. The Japanese “kaiju,” or giant monster movie, struck it big in America back in 1956, with the American release Godzilla, King of the Monsters! That alternate version of the 1954 Japanese picture Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla) tacked on scenes with American star Raymond Burr, but these days, Godzilla movies are made in America to begin with: what a world.

Godzilla enthusiasts came out to support the big guy’s return in 2014’s Godzilla, but while Gareth Edwards’ reboot was well-received, fans have impatiently awaited a movie like its sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. That’s because the sequel, directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, dusts off other iconic creatures from the Godzilla “family”: giant-moth-thing Mothra, pteranodon-esque Rodan, and three-headed monster King Ghidorah. The promise of monster-on-monster action—in various combinations—is all the true believers need to get their butts in seats.

But for everyone else, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a higher bar to pass. Aside from Godzilla and fellow MonsterVerse entry Kong: Skull Island, the CGI blockbuster era has spat out the Cloverfield movies, the Pacific Rim movies, Rampage, and more (including earlier stabs at both Godzilla and Kong). Dougherty’s take, then, emphasizes its plethora of monsters, but it also gathers a cast of character actors in an attempt to create a human-interest story on which to hang the action.

The biggest human star here, oddly enough, is teenager Millie Bobby Brown, making her big-screen debut on the strength of her Netflix sensation Stranger Things (another sci-fi monster tale). Brown plays Madison Russell, whose estranged parents are kaiju experts. Paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and anthrozoologist Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) couldn’t keep their marriage together after the loss of their son in a monster attack. When kaiju start making havoc again, and Emma and Madison get lost in the shuffle, monster-managing organization Monarch brings a reluctant Mark back into the fold.

From there, it’s a lot of character actors gathered around consoles in dark laboratories, under big radar maps that track the monsters’ movements. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins reprise their roles from the 2014 film, and we’re introduced to new scientists played by Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, and Zhang Ziyi. Dougherty makes every night dark and stormy and every interior shadowy, making for a night at the movies that sometimes feels more like a patience-testing blackout at home (3D only enhances that impression).

We spend too little quality time with Godzilla for him to register as a character (it’s a tough trick to give a creature personality, but hardly impossible), and the human characters prove one-note, mostly because there’s no time to discuss anything but monsters (the screenplay mostly consists of debates over monster policy). While every plot twist is explained, that doesn’t mean every plot twist is believable, and the Russells are so grumpy and/or kooky that there’s no rooting interest in bringing them back together.

The CGI creatures impress—a star is reborn in Mothra—and their battles, though dark and often too tightly framed, basically deliver the fire-breathing goods. It’s just unfortunate that in the process of giving fans more of what they want, the filmmakers squander the tastefulness of Edwards' franchise launcher and significantly dumb down the proceedings. As a result, the picture as a whole lumbers a lot like its forty-story star.

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