At the risk of sounding species-ist, most Toho Studios–designed giant monsters look alike in close-up. This is only a problem if, like the makers of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, you reserve your long, full-body shots for the big moments and the rest of the time cut between steaming reptilian snouts and blasts of blue flame. For much of the movie, I didn’t know who was winning, who was losing, or (half the time) who even was fighting. Is that one of Ghidorah’s heads or is it Rodan’s only one? The director, Michael Dougherty, can’t even seem to find the monsters in the frame. At some point a major character was killed and I missed it altogether. The movie is visual noise — it makes the Battle of Winterfell look like a model of clarity — and punctuated by dialogue so clunky I found myself wishing that Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, the ’98 Godzilla) had been hired to make it pithier. This thing is an unholy mess.
If it seems as if there’s too much going on, it’s because there is. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the third installment in the “Titan” series, which posits that ancient monsters live deep in the bowels of our planet and have come out of hibernation because of climate change, pollution, mass extinction, etc. Although they have the potential to flatten cities, the Titans “bring an essential balance to our world,” says a scientist (Ken Watanabe, who knows from city-flattening giant monsters, having grown up with Godzilla in Japan). The problem, we’re informed, is determining “which are here to threaten us and which to protect us.” Guess wrong and there goes another shopping mecca.
In the passable 2014 Godzilla, it was established that GodZ was our protector, and much of the previous two hours’ incoherence was forgiven when the big guy propped open the jaws of a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and incinerated the creature from the inside out. It was like he was saying, “Suck on this, asshole!” But Godzilla, King of the Monsters has more monsters and less dramatic logic. It also has an opening reminiscent of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which a San Francisco mom and dad blame GodZ — humanity’s savior, for crying out loud — for the death of their son in the last film’s climactic inferno. So, they’re skeptical. They sort of like him but have their son’s bones to pick.
Mom (Vera Farmiga) turns out to be another scientist at Monarch, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa’s monster-monitoring corporation around which this terrible series has been built; and partly to memorialize her son she wants more cities flattened by more titans, which makes no sense but is true I swear. She and the dead boy’s dad (Kyle Chandler) had split up when Dad blamed himself for not preventing his kid’s stomping and took to drink, but the Japanese scientist and his Brit sidekick (Sally Hawkins, who knows from aquatic monsters, having had sex with one) travel to where he’s photographing mangled animals and convince him to help them find Vera and his daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), after the pair are ostensibly kidnapped by an ecoterrorist played by Tywin Lannister. (Also opening today: Jaime and the Red Witch fight Islamic terrorists in Domino and Rob Stark sleeps with Elton John in Rocketman.) Kyle hates GodZ but agrees because, “I should have been there for them!” Vera’s stolen invention — the McGuffin — is a sound machine called the Orca that communicates with — or placates or provokes, it’s not clear — the Titans, which will cause them to destroy the planet and thereby save it from the terminal infection that is humanity. It’s like a new edition of Thanos’s Good Earth Guide.
I’m not complaining because the movie is dumb. It’s called Godzilla: King of the Monsters, after all. I’m complaining because Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster Zero), and Rodan deserved better. Humans sort of kill Godzilla, then sort of revive him with a lethal dose of radiation (“Six minutes until he blows!”), but then … I honestly can’t tell you. The film fumbles every opportunity to endear itself. When Madison summons Godzilla to Fenway Park, there’s not even a joke about the Green Monster — what the hell?
Godzilla meets King Kong next, apparently, but they’re both good guys in this series so what will make them fight? (Will they discover that both their moms were named Martha?) Frankly, I’m still not thrilled with GodZ being a champion of the natural world. The beast was conceived (in the original Gojira) to be as unnatural as possible — not an ancient lizard but a mix of the primeval and the nuclear apocalyptic. (That roar of his has an electronic component.) It’s true that after a while this metaphor for the A-bomb turned into Japan’s savior, but even Toho never thought to make him crunchy. Next thing you know, he and Mothra will settle down and start a commune.