Friday, May 31, 2019

Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

It's been a while since there was a movie where I thought the majority of critics were completely off base. A few decades ago, travesties like Speed Racer's 40% Freshness rating were common, but I honestly think the profession has evolved admirably with the times. There are plenty of films where my opinion doesn't align with theirs, but I'm at a loss to name a movie from the past five years that I believe critics got hilariously, embarrassingly wrong (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was six years ago, incidentally).

What I'm saying is I think they're due for a mulligan, so let's not judge them too harshly, despite the fact more than half seem to have missed the mark entirely on this film. This ridiculous, glorious, wonderful film.

Let's start where we usually start with monster movies. I've said before that it's generally a good sign when you see reviews complaining about human characters in a monster movie, since it's a pretty strong indicator the monsters worked. If anyone ever makes another kaiju movie film were the monsters are boring, that's all you'll hear about. Because of this, I was somewhat glad to see the majority of critics repeating the same complaints (albeit louder and with more agreement) that were lobbed against the prior film.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the human characters (with one exception) in King of the Monsters were solid. They're not groundbreaking or complex, but they're entertaining to watch in a way the leads of the last movie weren't.

As I said at the time, I enjoyed 2014's Godzilla despite Aaron Taylor-Johnson's bland POV character. The monsters (i.e., the only things anyone paying to see a monster movie cares about) were great, so I overlooked the movie's failings.

This time, that wasn't an issue. The lead from the last movie is nowhere to be seen. Instead we're following the only kind of people we have any reason to be interested in: ones who are interested in the monsters. 

Again, with one exception. The movie does have a character who feels as though he's present because some studio executive decreed at least one white guy got to do action stuff, and he's easily the least interesting part of the film. But even so, he's far less tedious than 2014's lead, and he feels more like one character in an ensemble than the star. And the rest of the cast is made up of character actors clearly having fun with the material.

They're essentially here to excavate the lore surrounding the movie's monsters and to explore how humans might approach or understand them. Are they gods? Demons? Titans? Forces of nature?

Anyone at all familiar with the genre will answer: "Yes, all of the above." Fortunately, King of the Monsters was made by people who are extremely familiar with monster movies in general and these monsters in particular. This is a tribute to the genre and the history of the iconic creatures. I was shocked by some of the details that survived to the final cut.

Speaking of the monsters...

They look great. The designs look modern without losing the charm and feel of the originals. Depending on your preferences, I'm sure some elements will look better or worse to different viewers, but I can't imagine any genre fan disliking the look of the titans. Even more important, the monsters all have unique personalities. They're more than effects: they're characters.

I should acknowledge that while I liked everything we got to see from the monsters, I was left wishing we'd been able to spend a little more time with Mothra. She got some great moments, but I felt like she deserved more screen time.

And she's not the only one. I'm not sure whether this counts as a spoiler (it might even qualify as an anti-spoiler), but I think it's worth knowing that for all intents and purposes King of the Monsters really only features four monsters. The trailers imply quite a few more, but everyone other than Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan is basically a cameo. I don't think this is a problem, but I did feel like the marketing was a tad misleading.

Visually, the movie takes a slightly different approach from last time: compared against the 2014 movie's realism, King of the Monsters feels a little more stylized and almost has the look of a painting. It's appealing, and it helps establish a consistent tone.

We should talk a little about that tone, in fact, since it's my best guess as to why critics missed the mark. I suspect some are mistaking this as brooding science fiction based on the color palette and theme. But while the movie is about something, the experience it offers is more visceral.

In a way, this is a kid's movie. It's exciting, engaging, and mildly scary. The best comparison I can come up with is the original Jurassic Park: it feels first and foremost like a movie made for eight- to thirteen-year-olds, or perhaps for adults nostalgic for movies they watched when they were that age.

To put it another way, IT'S A GODZILLA MOVIE. An actual, honest-to-Godzilla movie that feels like an update of the films Toho has been making all along. And for the life of me, I find it baffling that so many critics seem to have missed that entirely.

If you have any affection for the movies this is based on, I'd encourage you to seek it out as soon as possible. And if you've got a ten- or eleven-year-old kid who appreciates scale, maybe take them along, too.

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