“Let them fight” was the raison d’etre of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, the kaiju-centric creature feature that kickstarted Legendary Studio’s monster-verse back in 2014. Michael Dougherty’s sequel, King of the Monsters has certainly taken its forbear’s mantra to heart, offering up a smackdown between Godzilla and his most iconic enemies, writ extra-large in its IMAX presentation.
The success of Godzilla has always – since the character’s debut in Toho’s original Gojira – hinged on the audience’s point of view. On the one hand, the clumsy, rubber-suited pagoda trampling of the early films was pure kitsch. But stick a rear-projection of that rubber suit against a foreground of carefully-composed civilians fleeing in terror, and a simple trick of perspective transforms camp into terror.
On that knife-edge of spectacle and stupidity sits Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a lumbering, cacophonous monster, lurching recklessly from the straight-faced to the batshit ludicrous at the drop of a hat. This is a very different beast to Gareth Edwards’ predecessor. Where Edwards made us wait to see the titular titan, King of the Monsters throws up multiple monster smackdowns from the first act. This entry is structurally far more conventional than the 2014 film, but conversely, far weirder in its B-movie tone and expositional gibberish. But what we gain in gratuity, we lose in catharsis, resulting in a climactic four-way rumble that feels less impactful than the equivalent finale of Edwards’ effort, despite being bigger, louder and longer.
The visuals, too, are muddier than the last film. Baddie monster Ghidorah is perpetually shrouded in tropical storms as a sop to the film’s rather incoherent environmental theme, but as a consequence, the torrential rain and wind blur details of the monsters to the point of obfuscation. Indeed, the visual design of the film is consistently murky: frustrating, perhaps, but also evocative of these creatures as literal forces of nature. When Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific, his silhouette is barely distinguishable against the blue-black abyss; Mothra’s Gaia-like emergence is transcendent in its luminescence, while Ghidorah’s cyclonic necks and lightning breath embody chaotic wrath falling from the heavens. It is as if the environment itself has manifested these titans from the elements themselves.
It’s harder to interpret away the problems with the film’s sound mix. Bear McCreary’s operatic score is buried under a ceaseless cacophony that too often blurs into inchoate noise. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the deafening power of effectively-deployed silence in disaster movies. Nevertheless, King of the Monsters soundscape does have a few tricks up its sleeve, not least an ocean-bound use of music that will have old-school devotees punching the air with glee and everyone else feeling wistful for the age of classic music themes.
An amazing cast, counting Ken Watanabe, Millie Bobby Brown (acting everyone else off the screen), and a cruelly-wasted Sally Hawkins among its number, are redundant, though luckily Charles Dance’s deliciously evil moustache-twirler knows exactly what sort of film he’s in. His Jonah Alan exists purely to do evil things for the sake of being evil, without heed of anything as dull as plausible motivation. Jonah hearkens back to the schlock of the Showa and Heisei eras of the franchise, where humanoid aliens would manipulate the monsters into smashing up Tokyo for the simple purpose of being malevolent little shits.
Being able to get on board with such nonsense determines the subjective success or failure of King of the Monsters. In the end, whether one buys into the spectacle, or just sees the proverbial dude in a suit, ultimately comes down to that old trick of perspective.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell