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Godzilla: King of the Monsters has lots of fighting monsters. Why did it bother with humans?

Blockbusters can certainly be both cool-looking and good. So why doesn’t this one try?

A scene from Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
He’s back, baby.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters presents itself as a movie, and indeed: You can now plunk down $15 or whatever for a ticket at your local multiplex, load up on soda and nachos, and spend 132 minutes (not including previews) watching characters say, howl, or screech things and monsters slam each other around, all amid dimly lit rainstorms and backed by very loud noises. It is, technically, A Movie.

But King of the Monsters feels oddly stilted, even for a monster movie. The sequel to the favorably reviewed 2014 Godzilla (and the latest entry in a long and storied litany of films about the kind of lizard-like monster) lurches back and forth from kaiju-battle spectacle to brain-numbingly dull human drama. It feels not unlike a particular sort of video game, in that the interstitial bits of dialogue between the human characters serve mainly to get us from one big showdown to the next.

But a good video game also invests time and effort in those bits of dialogue and drama, so that players get interested in its story and themes as more than just window dressing for the parts where they solve puzzles and shoot at stuff. A good movie should probably do the same.

Alas, King of the Monsters does not. But I’m grateful for the film nonetheless, because it gave me 132 minutes to sit patiently and ponder an important question: If everyone seems to be loving the spectacle, should it matter to me if the rest of the movie is a bore?

Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a rote, endlessly recycled plot

The story of King of the Monsters is not at all interesting, but in brief: It takes place five years after the events of the 2014 film, in which the human world discovered that monsters were real, and a lot of people died. Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark (Kyle Chandler), a pair of married scientists who have since split up, were there in 2014 with their two young children, one of whom was killed during the attack. The other, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), is now a teenager.

Emma and Madison live in a rainforest in China, where Emma, a paleobiologist, works for a secretive coalition called Monarch; its goal is to find the monsters, which haven’t been seen since 2014. Her main project is tweaking a machine called Orca, which emits radio frequencies that reduce the monsters from raging whirlwinds of destruction to much more docile (if enormous) beasts. Meanwhile, Mark is far away, trying to forget monsters by studying wolves.

A scene from Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Warner Bros.

Then, in a series of bone-wearingly predictable developments, it turns out that some ecoterrorists also want to find the monsters for nefarious means, and that some of the good guys might actually be bad guys, and that humans both caused the impending END OF THE WORLD (by provoking the rise of the monsters) and could maybe also save it, yadda yadda yadda ...

Look, if you have seen any summer blockbuster made in the past decade, I’m confident that you could write a plot outline for King of the Monsters on the back of a napkin in a matter of minutes. The ante on the end-of-the-world blockbuster has been upped so many times that their plots have become largely interchangeable. It doesn’t matter if the threat is Thanos, or Decepticons, or aliens, or whatever — the end of the world has to be looming, the means of destruction has to be bigger than ever before, and blammo, you’ve got a movie.

Which is why it’s patently silly to try to shoehorn monsters (or more specifically, kaiju, the Japanese monster tradition to which Godzilla and his ilk belong) into that endlessly rote story arc, if you’re making a mostly Americanized version of the Godzilla story. People are not here for plot. Whether or not the world is about to be destroyed matters very little to the audience.

In fact, why have humans in this movie at all? I found myself wondering as I watched. Some may counter with the notion that viewers need to see other people onscreen to “relate” to a film, and to that, I say I think they are deeply misunderstanding why people go see movies like Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

It’s just not the kind of movie that people want to relate to. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has two purposes. The first is to give audiences a way to watch big creatures fight each other. The second is to overload the senses.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters works, by some measures

On the sensory overload front, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers by blunt force. My parents like to tell a story about how, when I was an infant, I slept so soundly that they could go into my bedroom in their fixer-upper first home and pound nails into the walls without waking me up. After King of the Monsters, I suspect that I may actually be lulled to sleep by overwhelmingly loud noises, and I present as evidence the fact that I struggled much more to stay alert throughout its two-plus hours of wall-to-wall BRAWWWW and BLOOOAAAM and SCREEEEE and CRUUUUUUUM than I do during the quietest of quiet dramas in a language I don’t understand.

A scene from Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Warner Bros.

Honestly, this almost aligns with the film’s cockamamie plot, since the monsters, too, are lulled into docility by a particular frequency. Perhaps King of the Monsters is just on my alpha wavelength.

Coupled with the spectacle of monsters bashing one another to bits in epic battles — after dropping from storm-strewn skies in retina-searing flashes of light, or arising from the mighty ocean as radioactive war machines, or arriving onscreen in some other grand and overwhelming way — there’s just a lot to take in. It doesn’t look particularly cutting-edge, and because all the monster brawls are staged in dark rainstorms, it can be hard to make out what’s going on, but if you think of it as an animated film, it’s not half bad. Plus, it’s exciting when Godzilla finally shows up. (The movie’s named for him, after all.)

All of which is to acknowledge that the reason people watch kaiju movies is to see kaiju fights, and there are a lot of kaiju battles in King of the Monsters.

A scene from Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Warner Bros.

What leaves me in a quandary as a critic, though, is that it’s a cardinal rule of criticism to judge a movie on the basis of whether it succeeds for the audience it’s made for. And by that measure, King of the Monsters succeeds on the whole. But the film suffers from trying to add too much dialogue and drama without doing enough to make it interesting or even original; if you’re betting that someone might say, wide-eyed, “Long live the king” at some point during the movie, well, you may collect your reward.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is cynical, in the way blockbusters too often tend to be

But critics don’t only judge movies on the basis of the audience they’re intended for. And as the 2014 Godzilla shows — it’s a film that boasts strong storytelling and moral gravity and some pretty awesome monster work — blockbusters don’t have sacrifice one for the other just because they’re blockbusters. Plenty of films have found a balance between action and all the other elements that can help make a movie resonate; think of the Planet of the Apes series, for instance, or various Star Wars installments. Even Avengers: Endgame adds heart and a sense of unpredictability to its save-the-world tropes.

In fact, if you aim to take your whole movie seriously, rather than simply focusing on the monsters, you may wind up expanding your audience. King of the Monsters, for example, could have leaned into the heritage of kaiju movies and explored the interaction between man and nature, between fear and awe.

At the very least, it could have suggested to its target audience that they are sophisticated enough as viewers to watch a movie that does multiple things at once, and sophisticated enough as consumers to demand more from their entertainment.

A scene from Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Warner Bros.

In that regard, King of the Monsters feels like a cruelly cynical example of a blockbuster cash-in with no heart, an assembly-line product, the movie equivalent of indistinct, high-sodium corn chips designed to fly off the convenience store rack to satisfy hunger pangs, only to be forgotten an hour later. In exchange for your money, they’ll feed you the least they possibly can. (The difference here is that movie theaters want to charge you a lot of money to see the latest blockbuster, rather than just a buck or two for a snack.)

Corn chips are fine. But if you subsist on corn chips alone, you’ll end up sick.

Which leaves me, as a critic, with little to say. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has big monster fights in the rain. But it feels by the end like you’ve just spent hours of your life on a fleeting amusement park ride.

If the humans don’t matter, why bother with them at all? Why make these ham-fisted attempts at plot if you’re not going to turn the humans into real characters? Why not just let the monsters duke it out for two hours and call it a day?

Or, alternatively, try to give those characters something approaching a spark of humanity, and turn their environmental apocalypse into something that might make the audience think for half a second about their own world?

That’s not too much to ask of a movie — especially a blockbuster with fighting kaiju. It’s too bad King of the Monsters couldn’t rise to the challenge.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens in theaters on May 30.

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