Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Photo: Warner)

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Michael Dougherty
STARS Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga

When it comes to the cinema of the 2010s, the 2014 Godzilla is The Manchurian Candidate of my moviegoing experience. I know I saw it — I have the review right here in front of me — but damn if I can recall any of the particulars. In the immortal words of that esteemed 20th century philosopher Curly Howard, “I’m trying to think but nothing happens!”

Yet if I scrunch my brain really hard, I vaguely recall Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a particularly boring hero, Bryan Cranston as his grumpy dad, and a Godzilla whose pot belly suggested he had spent the past few years guzzling Kirin Ichiban or Sapporo Draft while lounging on the ocean floor. Nothing else surfaces beyond that, although I do remember it being superior to 1998’s terrible Godzilla vs. Ferris Bueller, in which the oversized lizard was no match for Matthew Broderick’s incessant schtick. Indeed, glancing over my review of the ’14 model, it appears I mildly enjoyed it but found no compelling reason to see it again. I expect to hold a similar reaction to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest in the MonsterVerse (Christ, what a daft name) franchise that began with the 2014 Godzilla and continued with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. It’s fairly engaging in the moment, but there’s absolutely no reason to ever want to revisit it.

Like all films of this nature, the real battle isn’t between the monsters duking it out with each other but between the excitement of the creature-feature scenes and the banality of the copious sequences focusing on the human protagonists. It isn’t always a losing battle: In the 1954 classic Gojira (the original Japanese version, not the depoliticized 1956 American edit released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!), the segments centering on the humans were charged with the picture’s overriding theme of nuclear devastation, lending urgency to the plight of a people coping with the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than 10 years removed from the bombing. Godzilla would morph from villain to hero in later series installments — heck, he would even sire a baby boy named Minilla (not to be confused with the equally nauseating Milli Vanilli) — but here in Gojira, the title behemoth is collectively Fat Man and Little Boy, and his towering presence over Tokyo triggers a queasy flashback for the city’s citizens.

With the 2014 Godzilla and now Godzilla: King of the Monsters, there’s an effort to add import to the human sequences by invoking global warming, overpopulation and other manmade disasters at every turn. But it never sticks the landing as effectively as the nuclear angle in the original, largely because the filmmakers spend too much time on personal relationships that aren’t very compelling. In 2014, it was Taylor-Johnson’s soldier and Cranston’s activist; now, it’s Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell and Vera Farmiga’s Emma Russell, a divorced couple whose marriage was destroyed following the death of their young son during the monsters’ rampage five years ago. Mark has gone off grid while Emma looks after their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) even as she works on a device that she hopes will allow humans to control the Titans (i.e. Godzilla and the planet’s other ancient gods). Employed by the monster-watch outfit Monarch, Emma is kidnapped by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), which leads Monarch scientists Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Grahame (returning actors Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) to contact Mark in order to fashion a rescue attempt.

What happens next is a betrayal so ludicrous that, when one character yells at the turncoat, “You’re out of your mind!” they should instead be yelling, “You’re an absolute imbecile!” since the plan that’s put into motion (and the reasons behind it) is beyond moronic. Nevertheless, this plot pirouette largely sets in motion the critter skirmishes that involve Godzilla and other kaiju such as Mothra, Rodan, and the all-powerful King Ghidorah.

GODZILLA KING OF MONSTERS
Ghidorah in action (Photo: Warner)

Ever since my youth, when I first caught him in the 1968 all-star creature romp Destroy All Monsters, the three-headed Ghidorah always struck me as the most dynamic of all Toho grotesqueries. His appearance in Godzilla: King of the Monsters does not disappoint, and he remains a terrifying entity. The CGI work on display in this picture is particularly robust, with all of the marquee monsters rendered in stunning fashion. And when they get ready to rumble, there’s enough body-slamming, head-biting, and limb-twisting to satisfy all kaiju groupies (and, presumably, wrestling devotees as well).

Indeed, fans of Godzilla: King of the Monsters will praise the picture for its monster-on-monster action, and they’ll be correct. But detractors will condemn it for its human interludes, and they’ll be equally right. A bingo card of clichés would quickly be filled with such soggy lines as “We opened Pandora’s box, and there’s no way to shut it” and “It sounds like you admire these monsters,” and drab characters like a stammering scientist (Thomas Middleditch) and a wisecracking scientist (Bradley Whitford) add nothing to the proceedings.

When it focuses on the marquee attractions, Godzilla: King of the Monsters roars to life. At all other times, it’s merely Godzilla with a zzzz.

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