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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Producer: Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers and Thomas Tull
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, David Strathairn, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Thomas Middleditch and Aisha Hinds
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

D

Perhaps the summer will see a sillier, visually murkier, more incoherent would-be blockbuster than Michael Dougherty’s sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla,” but one can devoutly hope not. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” the third in Legendary Entertainment’s so-called MonsterVerse series (the second being 2017’s “King Kong: Skull Island”) is the weakest entry yet.

In the previous installment, Godzilla saved the world from a couple of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). The new film brings a rematch, indeed a championship bout for the title of king, but a very unequal one, since he’ll have to face off against three so-called Titans (ancient monsters) simultaneously. They’re the regulars from the old Toho creature-feature stable: the hydra-like Ghidorah, the pterodactyl-like Rodan, and the butterfly-esque Mothra.

Setting the stage for the combat, the script posits that in the five intervening years since Godzilla’s recent reappearance, the Monarch organization has expanded enormously under Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his aide Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins)—holdovers from the first movie—to keep track of all oversized beasties; they’re joined by a newcomer, klutzy executive Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch). They favor developing a rapprochement with the huge critters, while the military, led by Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), another returnee, seems to favor eliminating them if possible.

The remaining humans are newcomers. Chief among them are the Russells, Mark (Kyle Chandler), his wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) and their spunky teen daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Mark and Russell were caught up in Godzilla’s big battle in San Francisco in 2014, and their son was killed in the process. The two responded to the tragedy differently. Emma is head of one of Monarch’s outposts, responsible with her husband for having invented a device called ORCA, which allows rudimentary communication with the beasts. By contrast Mark has retreated to the wilderness, apparently to study the behavior of wolf packs. Poor Madison is caught in the middle.

The new drama begins when Emma’s outpost is invaded by ecoterrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, at his most malevolent), who kills a bunch of people, kidnaps Emma and Madison, and seizes the ORCA. That will bring Mark back from the wild to join in a mutual effort with Serizawa, Graham and Stenz, along with a host of newcomers played by the likes of Ziyi Zhang, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Bradley Whitford, to track them down. They mostly stand around looking at scads of monitors, shouting at each other and babbling lots of jargon as they try to decide what to do to obstruct Alan’s attempt to release all the Titans.

Emma joins in Alan’s effort—though whether because she was in league with him all along or has fallen in with him recently is unclear. They believe, in effect, that letting the creatures run amuck will somehow restore biological balance on the earth and be to the good of everyone (except the millions of people that might be killed, apparently).

In any event, their plan to do this all methodically collapses when Ghidorah emerges. The script presumes that viewers will know that in one version of this creature’s story, he’s an extraterrestrial dragon that kills planets, and in that capacity he begins instructing the liberated Rodan and Mothra to do their destructive worst. That forces humanity to depend on the intervention of Godzilla on the one hand and Madison on the other; she carries the ORCA to Fenway Park and uses it to bring all the beasties to Boston for a big face-off.

The humans here are secondary, of course, but it has to be said that the huffing, puffing Chandler and weepy, drooping Farmiga make a very tiresome pair; when Jackson remarks toward the close that he can understand why their kid would flee parents like them, you might not in agreement. Brown isn’t as irritating, but she comes perilously close. Watanabe exudes wisdom once more, and Middleditch does his goofy shtick fairly effectively, but the others surrounding them are mostly nondescript. The exceptions are Whitford, who snarls out his observations in what appears to be acute discomfort (understandably, given the quality of writing) and Hinds, whose spit-and-polish delivery grows irksome.

All these characters are involved in many of the big actions scenes in which they’re repeatedly trapped in such massive destruction and whirlwinds that they couldn’t possibly escape. But they do, of course, and the sight of Mark and Emma calling out for Madison as the world is crumbling about them comes off as more than faintly ludicrous.

But then so are the massive CGI sequences featuring the monsters. They’re all played in gloomy darkness, perhaps so that the shafts of radiation coming from them can have a greater impact, but more likely to make the infelicities in the effects less noticeable. The result is frequently visual chaos, with Lawrence Sher’s persistently jerky camerawork—in the human scenes as well as the CGI ones—made all the more frenetic by the hyperkinetic editing credited by the trio of Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay and Richard Pearson. (Sill the movie is unconscionably overlong at more than two hours.)

But the real absurdity in all the monster mayhem is that Dougherty turns Godzilla, who looks a good deal chunkier this time around (he appears to have overindulged during five years of inactivity), into a sort of great big E.T., whom the humans have to resurrect not once but twice in order for him to defeat Ghidorah (no spoiler here, given the movie’s very title). This plot twist has one benefit: it allows for a sort of reverse repeat of the famous conclusion of the original 1954 movie, when the scientist goes underwater and sacrifices himself to destroy the Tokyo-stomping dinosaur. This time Serizawa takes the plunge, not to kill Godzilla but resuscitate him with a blast of nuclear energy. The sequence, which takes us into Godzilla’s deep-sea digs, is overall goofy, but the addition of an angelic choir to Bear McCreary’s otherwise generic score at this point is especially hilarious.

One might make a case that “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is intended to be a goofy send-up of the entire franchise series that Toho created, but apart from the stumblebum business provided by Middleditch and a few throwaway lines from Watanabe, it’s all played with an earnestness it doesn’t deserve. The final credits offer a brief visual allusion to what’s promised (or threatened) as the next installment in the series—“Godzilla vs. Kong”—but before that match the makers might consider an intervening picture, “Godzilla Goes on a Diet.”

The best Godzilla film, incidentally, remains “Bambi Meets Godzilla.”

BRIGHTBURN

Producer: James Gunn and Kenneth Huang
Director: David Yarovesky
Writer: Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn
Stars: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Emmie Hunter, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Annie Humphrey, Stephen Blackebart and Steve Agee
Studio: Screen Gems

D

What if little Kryptonian Kal-El had turned out to be a bad ’un rather than a boy scout despite the best efforts of his adoptive earthly parents to teach him right from wrong? That’s the question posed by “Brightburn,” a horror movie that, sadly, doesn’t do much with its adolescent-supervillain-from-space premise.

Of course, the picture written by Brian and Mark Gunn (brothers of James Gunn, who directed the two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies and produced this one during the time he was temporarily removed from the third because of some embarrassing old tweets), doesn’t mention Superman or Clark Kent. But the screenplay follows his origin story so closely that the inspiration is obvious. The idea of a nasty Man of Steel has occasionally popped up in the comics, too, so it’s not as if the premise is all that original. So the question is merely how imaginatively the idea is dealt with.

The answer is: not at all.

The picture begins with what amounts to a prologue in which Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a Kansas farm couple, are making love, the bookshelves in their bedroom cluttered with tomes about infertility. (Get the message?) Their efforts are interrupted when what appears to be a meteor lands noisily nearby. Cut to home-movie footage of their adopted son Brandon as a toddler. Where do you suppose he came from?

Zoom ahead ten years and Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is just turning twelve, an exceptionally smart kid, The meteor-like spaceship concealed in the basement of the barn starts glowing red, summoning him to it and emitting the message “Take the world.” He learns that he has super strength and super speed, and is impervious to injury. He occasionally levitates, which soon develops into the ability to fly.

Tori and Kyle are concerned that Brandon’s acting peculiarly, but chalk it up to puberty. They might be a bit suspicious when he breaks a classmate’s (Emmie Hunter) wrist and her irate mother (Becky Wahlstrom) disappears in his brutal first kill, but mostly they’re too invested in the boy to do much more than shudder at the thought he might be doing people harm.

Next on his hit list, it turns out, are his Aunt Merilee (Meredith Hagner), the school counselor who threatens to talk to his mom about his odd attitude, and her husband Noah (Matt Jones), who finds the kid skulking in his closet. That does it for Tori and Kyle, but their efforts to rein Brandon in with extreme prejudice prove unavailing, and the picture ends with news footage of him, in the tattered mask and cape he’s scrounged up for his alter-ego, knocking down planes and buildings while an Alex Jones clone rants about government attempts to conceal what’s happening on a podcast.

There’s very little suspense in “Brightburn” (the name of the Kansas town where it’s set), simply because Brandon’s transformation is so abrupt, and then his shifts back and forth from sweet boy to a monster who can shoot laser rays from his eyes even more so, that tedium sets in. Still, Dunn, who from certain perspectives looks like a young Paul Dano, has an eerie presence, and he’s certainly more watchable than any of the adults. Denman is a bit less over-the-top than Banks, but Jones exceeds even her.

Given the presence of Gunn as producer, audiences might expect the movie to be a top-of-the-line sci-fi product, but it’s actually a bargain-basement affair, with Grade Z effects. Nor does it succeed in basic horror terms: most of the hoped-for scares are just jolts as characters jump into the frame accompanied by a blast of music and noise. Otherwise Tim Williams’ score consists mostly of deep, braying horns of the sort that lead you to suspect that Godzilla is about to appear (his movie is still a week off, though).

James Gunn, incidentally, did a perverse number on the superhero genre once before, in his 2010 picture “Super,” about a powerless vigilante. It was terrible. “Brightburn” isn’t quite as bad, but it’s quite bad enough.