GREG'S GRADE: C+
One of the keys to the success of Gareth Edwards' 2014 "Godzilla" is restraint. The first half of the film is spent building up the big guy's first appearance onscreen — and the spectacular visual effects ensure the moment isn't a letdown.
Five years later, Michael Dougherty's "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" takes the opposite approach to diminishing results. The movie's opening minutes take us back to Godzilla's battle against the MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) in San Francisco, where husband-and-wife scientists Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) Russell save their young daughter Madison but lose their son.
Skipping ahead to the present, we learn Monarch, the secret scientific organization devoted to studying the MUTOs, has spent the intervening years discovering more of the massive beasts — they call them "titans" — around the world, 17 and counting.
Following a divorce, Mark has retreated from it all, living alone in the Colorado wilderness. Emma, along with Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), is stationed at a Monarch outpost in China, where she's developed a device to communicate with the titans via sonar. Naturally, that's a valuable piece of equipment, and Emma and Madison quickly are taken hostage by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance), a former British Army officer turned ecoterrorist.
To be fair, "King of the Monsters" features superb creature design — its roster of kaiju includes old favorites Mothra, Rodan and the three-headed, dragon-like King Ghidora — and gorgeous, even painterly images. Mothra's bright, glowing appearance is particularly striking in a film dominated by grays and browns, and Rodan emerging from a long dormant Mexican volcano is simultaneously beautiful and terrible.
Even amid the constant storms that follow them around, the kaiju throwdowns — during which cities all over the world are reduced to rubble — are easy enough to follow. Dougherty, who directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Zach Shields, has obvious affection for these titans — perhaps too much. He gives them so much attention — not to mention screen time — that it quickly becomes numbing; what begins as awe-inspiring spectacle becomes routine.
Underwritten human roles further dull the movie's impact. This is the kind of film that virtually cries out for an actor who oozes charisma simply by appearing — someone of the Dwayne Johnson mold. Lacking that, at least give it some of the devious humor that played such a big role in Dougherty's holiday horror cult classics "Trick 'r Treat" (2007) and "Krampus" (2015).
The cast — which includes Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Ziyi Zhang and O'Shea Jackson Jr. — certainly is capable, but they're hamstrung by having to play everything deadly serious instead of acknowledging the total lunacy around them. Only Bradley Whitford, as a scientist who insists Godzilla travels so quickly by traversing giant subterranean tunnels, provides any real comic relief.
Frequent references to Kong and Skull Island are setting up next year's "Godzilla vs. Kong," which will be a sequel to both "King of the Monsters" and 2017's "Kong: Skull Island." Based on the three previous films, it's sure to look fantastic, but let's hope it adopts more of the offbeat, character-centric approach of the latter than the unrelenting grim tone of the former.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language. 131 minutes.
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