Give us the giant city-smashing creatures we're here for - and less of the puny human drama, says Anthony Morris.
Image: Moments of primeval devastation are what we want from Godzilla II. Source: Roadshow.
When you’ve been around for 60 years, you tend to build up a bit of baggage. Godzilla has gone from a metaphor for nuclear destruction to a protector of humanity and back again, a serious portent of doom to a man in a rubber suit (and let’s not even mention his cuddly cartoon offspring Godzookie). All these various approaches have their fans and their upsides; the one approach that everyone agrees doesn’t work is trying to do a bunch of them at once. Well, everyone but the people behind Godzilla II: King of the Monsters; at least they left the rubber suit out of it.
After the city-smashing events of 2014’s Godzilla, humanity is (somewhat understandably) terrified that giant monsters – here called “titans” (somewhat annoyingly) – will once again start wrecking up the place. Monarch, the mysterious organisation that’s been tracking these creatures (and which also played a part in the recent Kong: Skull Island), knows more than it’s willing to tell. This becomes a problem when a bunch of eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah (an under-used Charles Dance) steal the Orca, a device created by Dr Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) that can wake up and communicate with the titans buried around the world. Do giant monsters led by the three-headed “Monster Zero” rise up and wreak havoc? Is Emma’s ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) the only one who can stop a disaster not everyone wants to stop? Does their plucky daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) get too much screen time? And is Godzilla (who’s been swimming around the world’s oceans all this time) going to be part of the problem – or is he the only possible solution as monsters threaten to stomp humanity flat?
We can see people in pretty much every movie that comes to cinemas; giant city-smashing creatures are a lot harder to come by. So it’s annoying that this constantly keeps cutting away from the creatures (even mid-battle) to focus on a range of fairly dull humans arguing or looking at screens. That’s not to say boring people can’t work in a monster movie: 2017’s Japanese reboot Shin Godzilla did an excellent job of satirising Japan’s bureaucracy and response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster by focusing on squabbling government underlings. But when you have a roll call that includes glowing songstress Mothra and flying death-dealer Rodan (plus a number of other creatures glimpsed destroying cities world-wide), telling the tale of a grumpy dad who just wants his daughter back feels like a failure of nerve.
Early on there’s a grim joke that if humanity was to find its proper place in nature, we’d find ourselves as Godzilla’s pets. It’s when Godzilla II: King of the Monsters embraces that attitude that it works best. Fortunately while the drama is uneven and the characters are rarely memorable, the monsters get enough big moments to overcome the story’s many small flaws. The moments of primeval devastation – Roday destroys everything under him simply by flying overhead – and outright religious symbolism are the clear high points here; these creatures work best as symbols of forces humanity cannot possibly command or control.
Not that people don’t try. Frustratingly, more than once this film falls firmly on the side of those looking to harness the monsters, turning the creatures from unknowable forces we have to live with to valuable resources we can control. Perhaps a world where unstoppable disasters leave humans as bystanders at best (and dead at worst) was too grim for director Michael Dougherty. But Godzilla has always been a symbol of forces we cannot control; being terrifying is what made him a star.
Godzilla II: King of the Monsters
Director: Michael Dougherty
USA, 2019, 2hr 11min