'Godzilla: King of the Monsters': Film Review

A kaiju-sized step up from the monster's 2014 Legendary Pictures debut.

Legendary Pictures' "MonsterVerse" hits its stride in Michael Dougherty's Godzilla sequel, which features Millie Bobby Brown, Sally Hawkins and Kyle Chandler.

In the recent words of the polymath artist and great thinker John Lurie: "Though Godzilla has appeared in 47 different movies, his acting has never improved." Lurie's count may be quite a bit off, but he's on to something. Whether embodied by a man in a rubber suit or a vast team of digital artists, the eponymous radiation-breathing monster can't be counted on to carry the films he stars in. Their success depends on the pacing and execution of action sequences; the sweaty brows and urgent voices of scientists speaking to generals; and the subplots screenwriters must use to fill time before a giant lizard thwacks a skyscraper with his tail.

So even if he could still use an acting coach — and, like a certain superhero god we could name, really needs to go on a diet — the old monster has a grand time in Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Easily the most satisfying of his Hollywood-produced adventures and a respectable cousin to the long string of Japanese ones, the sequel to Gareth Edwards' admirably serious but dullish 2014 film is the first to suggest any promise for what Legendary is calling its "MonsterVerse" — a franchise in which the Japanese kaiju world meshes with that of Hollywood's favorite oversized ape, King Kong.

Here, that impressive legacy of big-screen destruction gets a nostalgic assist from humans known for comfort-food television: Stranger Things' breakout actor Millie Bobby Brown gets more dialogue than Eleven did, and briefly shares the screen with Randy Havens, who played the show's enthusiastic science teacher; Kyle Chandler, as her father, recalls the fiercely virtuous protectiveness of Friday Night Lights' Coach Taylor; and kibitzing in situation rooms, Bradley Whitford hails from The West Wing, that fantasy of presidential intelligence whose stock shot up at approximately 2:30 a.m. Eastern time on Nov. 9, 2016.

Comforting ingredients are very welcome in a film that posits not only a giant lizard and a Kong in the wings (we don't see him, but his showdown with Godzilla is set for next March), but secret sites all over the world where equally dangerous beasts lurk. The sites are guarded by a well-funded scientific organization known as Monarch, whose researcher Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) tries to calm a frightened public. Five years after Godzilla fought off monsters while wrecking San Francisco, protestors demand that all "Titans" should be killed; speaking to a congressional committee, Serizawa insists that humans should seek to coexist peacefully with creatures that, after all, were here a long time before we were.

That San Francisco catastrophe killed the son of two other scientists studying Titans. In the aftermath, Chandler's Mark Russell started drinking heavily and fled society. Wife Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who kept custody of their surviving child Madison (Brown), doubled down on her research and built the Orca, a sonic device that can soothe or enrage Titans by imitating their screeching calls.

Just as the Orca's effectiveness is demonstrated in a scene that introduces the giant, radiant moth called Mothra ("Queen of the Monsters," and a natural ally of Godzilla), it is stolen: A crew of so-called eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) wants to use it to bring about monstergeddon. They also kidnap Emma and Maddy, giving Mark a reason to help when Monarch comes seeking his expertise. Cue arguments on military submarines in which most of the scientists want to save Godzilla from the bad guys while Mark, still heartbroken about his son, wants to kill him and all other superpowered giants.

Mark's position will soften gradually, as Godzilla keeps saving his life from new and more frightening beasts. Chief among them is the hydra-like King Ghidora, a spiky-tailed dragon whose three heads sometimes seem so angry they fight amongst themselves. Unlike some of the titans, Ghidora is an "invasive species" from beyond our galaxy; replacing Godzilla as the planetary alpha-beast, he eventually strikes a terrifying pose atop a volcano, spreads his lightning-rod wings and sends sonic messages to monsters everywhere that boil down to "smash everything in sight."

It sometimes seems as if, in their attempt to focus on monster action, the filmmakers have cut out material that might have enriched the human side of the tale. We don't always understand the backgrounds or responsibilities of supporting characters, leaving it to the charismatic actors (welcome faces including Sally Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Zhang Ziyi) to make us not care; and the script by Dougherty and Zach Shields could use a polish from someone with a gift for witty dialogue. The longest speeches here are canned op-eds — villains promise that Titans, "the original and rightful rulers" of the planet, should take it back from the humans who have wrecked it; more thoughtful scientists repeat the kind of "Godzilla will restore global balance" stuff we've heard since the series' early days.

While monster nerds tally appearances by lesser-known (or maybe brand-new) Titans and cheer the battles between the main attractions — suffice to say that Queen Mothra isn't as fragile as she looks — the pic gives Maddy a shot at saving the day and Mark a chance to save her while she does it. The film puts just about the right emphasis on this familial plot: If we can't have comic relief, at least viewers can occasionally rest their eyes from an onslaught of beautifully designed CGI mayhem. News footage seen during the closing credits tries to imagine a world in which calmed-down Titans become a part of everyday life before flashing on a tantalizing cave painting: It seems that even in prehistoric times, humans fantasized about who would win in a showdown between a giant ape and a giant lizard.

Production company: Legendary Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, David Strathairn
Director: Michael Dougherty
Screenwriters: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Producers: Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, Thomas Tull
Executive producers: Yoshimitsu Banno, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Kenji Okuhira, Zach Shields, Barry H. Waldman
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Production designer: Scott Chambliss
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editors: Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay, Richard Pearson
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting director: Sarah Finn

Rated PG-13, 131 minutes