As of this writing, the 2019 version of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” — not to be confused with the 1956 “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” — stands at roughly 40% on the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score, which leads me to believe that a majority of modern movie critics literally don’t know how to watch a Godzilla film.
When you’re watching an installment of the “Friday the 13th” film series, you shouldn’t be saying to yourself, “I sure hope those young people at Camp Crystal Lake are given well-developed character arcs,” because the whole point is to see how Jason Voorhees will use his machete to turn them into flesh-origami.
Likewise, when you’re watching the first American film to deliver a Monster Cinematic Universe by bringing together Godzilla and the most famous of his fellow kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) — namely, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and last and also least, Rodan — you shouldn’t be saying to yourself, “I wish this film had devoted more screen time to the family drama of the human characters.”
The 2014 “Godzilla” made the mistake of forgetting who its title character was, and while this film does linger on the human cast a bit longer than I’d like, it helps that “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” has the most Emmy- and Oscar-winners I’ve seen slumming in a disaster film since producer Irwin Allen was flipping cruise liners upside down and turning skyscrapers into towering infernos.
To be fair to the actors, they all do what they were clearly hired to do, because when you cast Charles Dance from “Game of Thrones” as a sinister villain and Bradley Whitford from “The West Wing” as a sarcastic analyst, you can pretty much just let them run on autopilot.
And it actually is kind of fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes operations of Monarch, the secret scientific organization devoted to cataloging and containing the kaiju.
But even with appealing and talented actors like Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things,” Zhang Ziyi of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and the always awesome Ken Watanabe — reprising his role as Dr. Serizawa from the 2014 “Godzilla,” in a way that more closely emulates the Dr. Serizawa of the original 1954 “Godzilla” — all the human drama is merely meant to whet one’s appetite for the kaiju-on-kaiju fights promised by this film’s title.
Over the decades, each of these monsters has developed a well-defined personality, and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” honors their histories in how each one is portrayed.
The initially dangerous Mothra comes out of her cocoon to become the omni-benevolent queen of the kaiju, radiating compassion for both humanity and Godzilla, while the alien King Ghidorah exerts an authoritarian level of control over the kaiju who are native to the planet, as he seeks to transform Earth into an environment more suitable to his needs.
The trailer for “Rambo: Last Blood” ran prior to my screening of this film, and it felt appropriate, because while the Japanese don’t have a Sylvester Stallone of their own, they have Godzilla, whose appearance here bears a striking resemblance to Stallone in his old age, with both characters exhibiting craggy faces and lumbering gaits that make them look like nothing so much as mountain-sized walking landslides.
Even though this is only the second Godzilla film produced in the continuity of Legendary Pictures, he already feels old, and he’s already acting like he’s emotionally through with all of this.
Like Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, Godzilla has never had speed or stealth or strategy on his side, which is underscored here by the fact that all three of his fellow famous kaiju can fly, and he can’t, which means the only way either Rocky or Godzilla can win is by absorbing the worst body-blows, and then simply outlasting their opponents through sheer force of will.
Like Stallone’s John Rambo, Godzilla is visibly tired of fighting, which is made all the more tragic by the fact that fighting is all those characters know how to do.
As for Rodan, anyone who’s grown up with 1980s cartoons will know what I mean when I say that Rodan is to the kaiju what Starscream was to the Transformers.
If this film was the 1983 Peter Billingsley film “A Christmas Story,” King Ghidorah would be Scut Farkus, the yellow-eyed bully whose blowhard boasts proved paper-thin, and Rodan would be Grover Dill, his weaselly little backstabbing bootlick of a henchman.
No one loves you, Rodan.
The kaiju combat scenes in this film are the equivalent of the final battle sequence in “Avengers: Endgame,” in that the power and scope of those battles is properly conveyed at last, because the special effects and the cinematography have finally caught up with our childhood imaginations.
And just in case you might be getting bored, the film throws in old-school hollow earth theory and the lost civilization of Atlantis as plot points, all while slipping in neat little nods to the original films, from the classic Godzilla theme, to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tribute to the twin fairy princesses who accompanied Mothra back in the day.
I have no idea how Legendary plans to top this with “Godzilla vs. Kong” next year, but I’ll be first in line to see them try.
As with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stick around until the last of the closing credits have rolled, not only for a mid-credits montage revealing how Godzilla and the other kaiju have transformed their world, but also for a post-credits scene that teases the possible reversal of at least one of this film’s more seemingly permanent deaths.