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.”