Five years after Godzilla's cataclysmic battle took a tragic toll on their family, paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Stranger Things' superstar Millie Bobby Brown) are at a remote island testing a creature-communicating device on newly-birthed giant larva Mothra. The test is a success. However when eco-terrorists led by military specialist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) invade the lab, taking Emma and Madison hostage, the call goes out to their estranged husband and father Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler). Reunited with Monarch, the secret monster-researching organization run by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Mark sets out to save his family and retrieve the device. Only to stumble onto an insane plan that draws Godzilla up from the ocean depths to do battle with an ancient foe.
Depending on whom you ask Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla was either an inspired contemporary take on the iconic Japanese monster movie or a ponderous, snail-paced bore with far too little of the titular titan. Hence the creative team opted for a different strategy with the sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, co-written and directed by Michael Dougherty - creator of cult horror films Trick 'r Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015). And were promptly slammed for delivering a bombastic overdose of 'brainless' monster action. There is just no pleasing some people. Amid the flurry of naysayers deriding the film as not simply a 'bad' movie but symptomatic of everything wrong with modern cinema (which, in a year when far more cynical blockbusters made far more money, is a statement open to ridicule) only a small contingent of kaiju fans recognized KOTM for what it was. Arguably the closest in style, tone and thematic content to a good old-fashioned Showa era Godzilla romp Hollywood has yet produced. Ironically in staying true to the spirit of classic Godzilla, Dougherty likely alienated the mainstream audience he was trying to court. KOTM is a specific type of kaiju film likely to appeal only to a specific type of kaiju fan given that lately even Japanese films like Shin Godzilla (2016) and the turgid anime trilogy have steered Godzilla in a different direction.
As the plot unfolds in delightfully delirious fashion, Dougherty hits all the familiarly outlandish story beats and motifs from the original Godzilla series, in a manner instantly endearing to those with fond memories of Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster (1964) - of which this plays like a loose remake - or Destroy All Monsters (1968). Capturing that strange mix of childlike wonder and apocalyptic dread, KOTM abandons Edwards' attempt at sober realism for amped-up CGI spectacle. Amidst glorious reinventions of series favourites like Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan (whose breathtaking sky battle with military jet fighters proves a highlight) the film's computer graphics unapologetically recreate the kind of mass destruction and monster battles kids create with their action figures. Which for some sounds like a bad thing though arguably remains in keeping with the colourful chaos wrought by special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya's exploding miniatures in the original series.
Along with revisiting the ecological angst Edwards established in the 2014 film (indeed this time the core conceit is the belief that Godzilla is the embodiment of nature chastening humanity for its hubris and reckless endangering of the environment), the plot again pits haunted, obsessed parents against a stoic, determined child. Dougherty has the good sense to assemble amiable leads Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown whose vivid performances transcend fairly cliched roles and keep viewers engaged in the human drama beneath the explosions and rampaging 'titans' (the term used here after Guillermo Del Toro's overrated genre pastiche Pacific Rim (2013) co-opted the word 'kaiju'). On the other hand the film further echoes the classic Godzilla series by featuring so many characters great actors like Zhiyi Zhang (playing twins in one of many neat nods to motifs in the classic series), O'Shea Jackson Jr. and especially Sally Hawkins struggle to get noticed. Though Bradley Whitford relishes a generous supply of waspish one-liners. For all criticisms leveled the script actually has depth along with a number of disarmingly subtle flourishes. Among these Madison's discovery of the thin line between human and monster a moving speech that draws a clever parallel between Serizawa choosing to work with the nation that dropped atomic bombs on his homeland and Mark learning to understand the true nature of Godzilla. Especially ingenious is a plot twist that reverses the motive behind the supreme sacrifice that concluded the original 1954 Godzilla bringing things full circle. For all its showy rampaging monsters and explosions, KOTM maintains a coherent ideology in which nature is embodied by conflicting forces uniting to achieve a greater good. Music by the dependable Bear McCreary, featuring the heartwarming return of Akira Ifukube's classic monster themes along with Blue Oyster Cult's very apt Godzilla song ("History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.") Bring on Godzilla vs. Kong!