Godzilla: King of the Monsters **1/2

Admirably somber, visually arresting and dumber than a bag of hammers, this unusually grim and often nonsensical entry in the iconic franchise benefits from an overqualified A-list cast and seamless CGI. It's an agreeably entertaining mess of a summer spectacle that nevertheless delivers the kaiju mayhem. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

The fate of the world takes a backseat to one family's grieving process in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” a direct sequel to Gareth Edwards' 2014 Spielbergian monster mash that avoids that flavorless movie's decision to leave the bulk of the creature clashes for the very end, long after this critic had checked out.

But while this new entry in the kaiju franchise begun by Japan's Toho Co., Ltd., has plenty going for it, narrative cohesion and logic are far down the ladder in director/co-screenwriter Michael Dougherty's list of priorities. Characters' choices tend to be questionable at best, foolhardy and self-defeating at worst. It ends up mattering less than it should, since the flimsy plot amounts to little more than connective tissue between the set pieces, and those certainly succeed in sparking your inner child's insatiable desire to see big monsters smash things up good. It's at that visceral level that this Warner Bros. Release, only the third “Godzilla” completely produced by a Hollywood studio, works best.

The movie begins on a dark and somber note that sets the tone for the rest of this apocalyptic tale. Amid the remains of a San Francisco neighborhood destroyed by the titular radioactive reptile, Mark and Emma Russell search in vain for their son and realize to their horror that he did not make it. Flash forward to present day, and Emma (Vera Farmiga), a paleobiologist who lives with her surviving child Madison (“Stranger Things'” Millie Bobby Brown), has moved overseas to help Monarch, the crypto-zoological agency in charge of tracking down the Titans, this Monster-verse's term for kaiju. Meanwhile, Mark (Kyle Chandler, no stranger to monster movies) has channeled his grief into studying wolves in Colorado, which will come in handy later on.

Emma's current endeavor is a device that recreates the sonar frequencies Titans use to communicate. But just as her latest subject, the Titan larva that will become Mothra, emerges from its shell, her facility comes under attack by a team of ecoterrorists spearheaded by prototypical English baddie Jonah Alan (“Game of Thrones'” Charles Dance in the Max von Sydow role). It's a bracingly violent scenario, but Dougherty (“Krampus”), working from the screenplay he co-wrote with Zach Shields, does very little with this intriguing setup reminiscent of “Three Days of the Condor,” one of several wasted opportunities here.

What the filmmaker opts for instead, an exploration of ethics and thorny, ends-justifying-the-means situations on a global scale, injects a welcome ambiguity to what could have easily been a more rigid good-versus-evil narrative. Those nuances, however, are often drowned out by shrieking creatures that emerge from their eons-long slumber to lay waste to entire cities, beginning with the three-headed King Ghidorah, a dragon-sized raptor to Godzilla's T-Rex and a worthy foe to the alpha lizard. It's in these two creatures' smackdowns where “King of the Monsters” fires on all cylinders. The movie also has a little fun mentioning the creatures' past propensity for copulating when they're not wreaking havoc.


A bolder storyteller would have explored the sexual lives of kaiju more thoroughly (can you imagine the visual possibilities?), but to his credit, Dougherty stages the destruction with a knack for disorienting chaos and an eye for Christian iconography, without sacrificing spatial continuity. Take, for instance, the evacuation of the fictional Isla de Mara in Mexico. A fictional eye's view shot swoops over hundreds of residents running in fear from a volcanic eruption that gives rise to ... something deadlier. Meanwhile, Monarch scientists Ishiro Serozawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, wasted here), here reprising their roles from the 2014 production, persuade Mark into joining their efforts to stop the ecoterrorists and rescue his wife and daughter.

The one-dimensional characters, with their uncanny ability to shoot themselves in the foot at every turn, might have been less of a problem if Doughterty and Shields didn't make such a big deal out of their central family unit's emotional wounds. Why do so many of these newer disaster films think the troubles of three people related by blood amount to more than a hill of beans when the fate of the planet is at stake? This is one “Godzilla” movie that needed to be more pragmatic. After all, there's another dysfunctional power struggle at play here that's far more gripping, and it doesn't involve humans. On that level, “King of the Monsters” is more aligned with the Toho films that inspired it, only enhanced by a major Hollywood studio's well-funded technological might. Another aspect that bridges the movie's Eastern and Western sensibilities is the redemptive power of sacrifice, which makes for the handful of memorable moments involving the human characters.

But was it too much to ask for the narrative spine here to be stronger, better thought out? If I'm sounding harsh, it's because there's a lot of squandered potential here, especially when considering the film's engulfing visuals, which retain the film's somber tone without taking away the primal fun of seeing jumbo-sized monsters maim and take each other out. The pluses barely outweigh the plethora of minuses, mainly because these monsters assume their roles as oversized onscreen toys with bells-and-whistles panache. When it comes to kaiju yarns on this side of the pond, Guillermo del Toro paid better homage with “Pacific Rim.” But for those who like their mayhem noisy, undemanding and pretty to look at, “King of the Monsters” takes the crown, at least for now, as an acceptable substitute.

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