By Owen Gleiberman
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - There are a lot of timeless movie monsters, but Godzilla, in the dozens of Japanese films that featured him, always raised a metaphysical question: Was this 165-foot-tall, beady-eyed, radiation-breathing T.-rex-meets-lizard-king, with bony sculptured plates running down his back and skin like raggedy carpet, an awesome creature to behold despite the cheesiness of the special effects that created him? Or because of the cheesiness?
The answer (which is very Zen) was, of course: both at once. That's the essential Godzilla principle. You knew, somewhere deep inside your reptile brain, that you were seeing not a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur laying waste to Tokyo but a man in a monster suit trashing a miniature train-set mockup of Tokyo. All of which made Godzilla a little fakey and a little funny -- and, when I was growing up, watching him on a black-and-white TV set in the late '60s and early '70s, weirdly comforting. But that tacky/innocent edge-of-camp quality also cut to the essence of what was spectacular about Godzilla. There was an honest wonder to this scowling giant (and he was touching, too), because the primitive ingenuity of the effects made it feel like you were seeing the ultimate creature-feature puppet show. To watch Godzilla was, and still is, to lose yourself in make-believe.
The beauty of the 2014 American reboot of "Godzilla" is that it was a special-effects lollapalooza -- as advanced, in its way, as a Marvel epic -- that used digital technology to recreate that analog aura of rubber-suited, flying-dragon-on-a-string primitivism. And the sleight-of-hand trick was, in itself, awesome. The movie stayed true to the cheeseball splendor of the original kaiju films even as it turned them into retro pop poetry. It was a monster movie for the child in us all.
So is "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," but Gareth Edwards, who directed the first film (and went on to make "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," one of the rare artistic knockouts in the "Star Wars" franchise), didn't stick around to direct this one. And Michael Dougherty, who now takes the reins, isn't the same kind of bravura pulp magician. He gets the job done, staging a movie that, at its best, makes for a giddy and satisfying clash of the titans. You won't feel cheated; at stray moments, you'll feel the wonder. But for every high point, there's a moment when the thrill threatens to leak away.
This isn't a "Godzilla" sequel that throws one or two additional monsters into the mix. It's a full-blown, shoot-the-works, open-the-floodgates-and-let-it-rip primeval-beastie blowout, like a remake of the 1964 Japanese orgy "Ghidora, King of the Monsters" -- which, in effect, it is. It's the third film in Legendary's MonsterVerse, coming after "Godzilla" and "Kong: Skull Island," but I'll be damned if I could tell you how it advances the larger narrative. We're now all set up for "Godzilla vs. Kong," coming in 2020, but if you told me that the next film in the franchise was "Party with Megalon," it would make about as much sense.
In addition to Godzilla, the new movie revives a number of the fabled creatures from the classic kaiju era. There's King Ghidora, the gargantuan winged serpent-hydra who first appeared in "Ghidora, the Three-Headed Monster," and who still swings those three elongated necks around like the lightly bobbing limbs of a marionette, though his heads have been redesigned so that they curl back like fiery '50s car fins.
There is Rodan, the dragon crossed with a pterodactyl, who here gets updated into a kind of demon hawk. And there is Mothra, always the most bizarrely angelic of the kaiju creatures (as well as the star of my all-time favorite Godzilla film: "Godzilla vs. The Thing," as it was once titled in the U.S.), who starts off as an angry larvae and then metamorphoses into a luminous moth of lyrical vengeance (though I did miss, from the earlier films, the way Mothra's flapping cardboard wings could produce hurricane gusts).
As long as these creatures are up onscreen, I remain more happy than not, and Dougherty does his best to carry forth the style of towering beasties clashing by night that Gareth Edwards raised to such a pitch of grandeur. Yet this movie feels more prosaic and less magical. The monster battles set at night, lit by blue phosphorescence, get a little visually sludgy, and you may start to long for some daylight clarity -- for those moments when you can sit back and gawk at Godzilla and just sort of behold him.
The kaiju films, once you got past the early classics, often tied themselves in knots trying to decide which creature was a friend or foe to mankind (and why), and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" turns that theme into a lot of blockbuster cud-chewing. Too much of it. The first film had Bryan Cranston to lend it some panache, and the void he left is now filled by Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler as Emma and Mark Russell, a divorced pair of scientists who lost their son during Godzilla's 2014 destruction of San Francisco (the last time the monster has been seen).
Emma, along with Mark, is the co-inventor of the Orca, a bio-sonar device that synthesizes the cries of various titans into a sound that can communicate with them. You'd think that Emma was one of the good folks, but when she and her 14-year-old daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), are kidnapped by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), a former British Army colonel turned eco-terrorist, their agendas actually line up. Emma is pro-titan, which might sound sympathetic, but she's so pro-titan that she's become a fanatic. Sounding a lot like Thanos from the "Avengers" films, she declares that to restore the karmic ecological balance of things and deal with issues like overpopulation, the titans should be allowed to run wild, destroying what they want; then the planet will regain its equilibrium. The trouble is, Vera Farmiga is too level-headed an actress to deliver this stuff as if she believes it, so it just sounds like nutcake raving.
There's a lot of B-movie boilerplate in "King of the Monsters," like the opening half hour, which is fairly deadly. And all the debate about whether mankind should stand with the titans or not doesn't come down to much, since it's ultimately revealed that Ghidora -- no, this is not a spoiler, it's movie mythology that's 55 years old -- is an alien presence who puts out a kind of siren call to control the other creatures. The film leaps around from one Monarch outpost to the next (China, Colorado, Bermuda, Mexico, Antarctica), and while that provides some geological diversity -- it's fun to see Rodan emerge from a Mexican volcano, or Ghidora (dubbed Monster Zero until they figure out who he is) frozen in a giant tomb of polar ice -- it deprives the plot of a center of gravity.
Complaining about the storyline of a "Godzilla" movie may seem beside the point, since even the best of the Japanese films (including, yes, the restored, de-Raymond Burr-ed, original 1954 "Godzilla") were, in a word, schlock. Yet they were schlock haunted by a weirdly masochistic metaphor. The fact that the films saw Godzilla as a stomping nuclear god made the apocalypse he caused seem like some terrible act of fate.
In "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," the metaphor has shifted: It's all about government conspiracy and ecological balance (the titans are part of the earth's natural defense system!), which can make your brain glaze over. Most of the actors spend the movie yammering on in an overly standardized disaster-movie mode of much-intensity-about-nothing, though Ken Watanabe, as the venerable Monarch scientist Dr. Serizawa, evokes a little of the old Godzilla reverence.
A lingering question: Is it my imagination, or does it look like Godzilla has been hitting the dessert cart? I'm not merely speaking about his distended belly. The creature has been designed so that his head and neck, which used to resemble the top of the letter f, now sort of melt right into his torso. As a result, his face no longer pops in the same vivid anthropomorphic way. And that's a miscalculation. If Godzilla looks a little chunkier than before, so be it, but you don't want to watch a "Godzilla" movie thinking that his personality is slightly out of focus -- that for all the agreeable destruction he causes, he's not quite the same dude.