The Lizard King

Godzilla defends his crown in this summer’s biggest monster party.

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters starts with running and screaming, then kneeling and praying

What’s killing the cinema, #448 in a series: not enough exclamation points in titles, a clear proof of lack of confidence. And bring back shiny subordinate clauses. Dracula: Prince of Darkness has far more heft than plain old Dracula. The very title of Godzilla: King of the Monsters makes up for Michael Dougherty’s bewildering direction. The “who, what and why” isn’t just out the window, it’s over the hills and far away. Sizable info dumps are required because of links to Godzilla (2014), and there’s more cast than anyone knows what to do with: Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn stand around like guests who don’t know anyone at the party.

Raymond Burr was injected into the American version of Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956; note the exclamation point). “Steve Martin” returned for the 1985 redo, in which the camera closes in on red sleepless eyes, as if Martin had had a long, hard 30 years since first he saw Godzilla. The suggestion of PTSD is back, with paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) waking up from the familiar nightmare of a giganotosaurus trampling San Francisco. Farmiga is a favorite tragedian, a woman of constant sorrow who never wears out that mood. Her Emma lives with her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) who takes the traditional kaiju role of the plucky schoolkid in short pants who understands things the adults fail to take into consideration.

Emma is working with Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), a wealthy eco-terrorist bent on freeing the world’s chimera. Dance is the one who, sighting Godzilla, says, “Long live the king,” as if something were dying inside of him as an actor. It seems counterintuitive to free monsters after one stomps your son, but we get an explanation. Farmiga has one of those effective mad-scientists speeches that starts logical and ends up fanatic. Meanwhile she finds herself re-encountering her estranged ex husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), recruited by the world’s monster-monitoring organization MONARCH.

The animism is crazy. Like any other religious picture, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has some dogma that has to be swallowed whole, like a crane choking down a frog. Earlier versions suggested that the ever-regenerating beast was more than just a raging monster unleashed by the atomic age . . . that he was indeed beyond good and evil—a living warning against destroying the planet with nuclear war and pollution.

The actual battles are highly satisfactory, even if no one gets to shout, “Destroy all monsters!” Happy moments include Godzilla swimming up to glare through a lab’s undersea window; he glows with bioluminescence, like a pissed-off cuttlefish. Even more unnerving is the triple-headed King Ghidorah. “Sounds like gonorrhea,” says Bradley Whitford, there to add some peculiar commentary to the situation in a MONARCH control room.

Ghidorah’s heads don’t just bob at random like a marionette’s head, as in the old days; here they sync up with each other, and they’re able to scowl viciously. Meanwhile the 500-foot pterodactyl Rodan knocks over a Mexican town like a hurricane. (Quetzalcoatl, is that you?) By contrast the mammoth Mothra is clearly on the side of the angels, a glowing Tinkerbelle to Godzilla’s Peter Pan.

All credit to Ken Watanabe reprising his role as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa from Godzilla (2014). He gives the beast all reverence: “We must keep our faith in Godzilla.” Serizawa gives the grimmest warning a Japanese scientist can possibly give in a kaiju: “This is a dangerous path!” Insincerity does not dwell in Watanabe, and his final contact with Godzilla is quite touching, a tribute to the dramatic underpinnings of the better Toho studio movies. If it’s sometimes hard to tell which MONARCH base we’re at, what city we’re in and which direction the monsters are coming from, at least we always know the proper attitude to approach Godzilla: on our knees.

‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ is playing in wide release.
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