If there’s one thing Godzilla: King of the Monsters makes abundantly clear, it’s that we’ve collectively warped our definition of the word “sequel” beyond the point of return. Studios have tried to get around the now-old-fashioned expectation that there be some sort of narrative thread connecting each entry in a given series via the notion of the “cinematic universe,” a genre-film marketing technique that has unfortunately evolved into a school of filmmaking in its own right. Why bother worrying about your script when you’re assured that by human centipede-ing together a few regurgitated elements from one CGI’ed-to-death blockbuster to another, you’re assured what will almost certainly amount to serious worldwide box-office intake?
I am not kidding when I say I spent at least half of the film’s 131-minute running time trying to decide whether I had actually seen the previous entry in the series (that would be 2014’s somewhat better Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla, which was all but guaranteed a “sequel” after it grossed more than $500 million worldwide). “Did I miss Vera Farmiga in the last Godzilla movie I saw?” I thought to myself early on as the film started dishing out flashback after flashback of the actress (who here plays a nobly intentioned but unhinged scientist named Emma Russell) and her daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) surviving a monster attack that leveled San Francisco five years previously. Nope: The only actors who make a return this time around are Sally Hawkins, David Straithairn, and Ken Watanabe, all of whom are wasted in offensively boring but presumably decently paying supporting roles.
That’s a problem throughout the film: We’re presented with supporting character after supporting character (say a brief hi and then an even quicker bye to O’Shea Jackson Jr., Zhang Ziyi, and Thomas Middleditch), but director Michael Dougherty and his co-writer, Zach Shields, fail to establish Farmiga, Brown, and fellow ostensible co-star Kyle Chandler as leads. The aforementioned expository flashbacks are supposed to help us feel invested in the family drama that should be the core of the film, but instead, it feels like we’re watching a second installment to a film that never existed (which is pretty much exactly what’s going on here). Instead of wrangling with the potentially interesting thread about a mother pulled toward villainy after being consumed by the loss of her child, the film contents itself with grafting together monster standoff after monster standoff — rendered with so-so CGI — cheapening the impact of what should be its grand finale.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually like big, dumb monster movies and always have. I had little complaint about 2017’s King Kong: Skull Island, a film that was big and dumb but also a lot of fun thanks to the more-than-game group of actors involved, and against all odds, I somehow found myself invested in last year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (despite not caring an ounce for its timid fan service–propelled predecessor). And I also thought that Guillermo del Toro made a thoroughly entertaining summer blockbuster with 2013’s Pacific Rim (though I hear I made an excellent choice to skip out on last year’s sequel). What do the aforementioned films all have in common? A sense of humor (here’s looking at you, Ian Malcolm), an attempt at working in some sort of intelligible narrative, and a basic understanding of what audiences want in a big, dumb monster movie — come on, give us at least one memorable monster fight!
All that to say I will probably go see whatever dumb “sequel” is released approximately five years from now, and I will definitely leave trying to figure out whether or not I ever saw Godzilla: King of the Monsters.