Despite featuring two of cinema’s biggest stars (literally), Warner Bros.’ budding MonsterVerse — a franchise built around the characters of Godzilla and King Kong — inexplicably hasn’t gotten a lot of fanfare. This, despite the fact that 2014’s “Godzilla,” a reboot of the classic monster story, earned nearly $530 million at the box office and was generally well-received, save for some quibbles about the human story.
Five years later, you might expect the sequel, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” to have addressed those concerns. Does it come out roaring — a balanced mix of fire-breathing action and story that moves you, efficiently, from one kaiju bout to the next?
Unfortunately, “Monsters” tries a little too hard to correct course from what some saw as its predecessor’s flaws. The movie does not roar, but rather emits only a serviceable yelp.
Gareth Edwards, who directed the 2014 “Godzilla,” was criticized for waiting too long to reveal the titular Japanese movie monster in that film. In contrast, the new film’s director, Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”), seems to revel in wreaking havoc in the kaiju sandbox, showing off every last trick and ability possessed by Godzilla and the other classic movie monsters that are reintroduced here. But instead of figuring out a compelling story for the non-skyscraper-sized characters, Dougherty and co-screenwriter Zach Shields seem to be counting on the fact that you’ll take a bathroom break during the exposition and return in time for the next battle.
The premise is this: Monarch, a shadowy cryptozoological agency that studies such ancient, physics-defying monsters as Godzilla, has discovered that more and more of these creatures, known as titans, exist, and that they are entombed in some of Earth’s farthest reaches.
As a former Monarch scientist — and the estranged husband of a current one (Vera Farmiga) — Kyle Chandler brings his signature gruff wit and divorced-dad energy to the job of co-parenting a daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) and mourning the loss of a son (whose death is shown in flashback). Chandler and Farmiga’s inane actions, contrived in service of the plot and nothing else, fall apart under close scrutiny. And Brown is underused — delivering shrieks in the face of the story’s twists and turns, but not much more.
There are also haphazard attempts to weave in the themes of government interference, climate change and East Asian mythology as motivation for some of the characters.
Ken Watanabe, reprising his role as a scientist, is the only returning character who is given anything to chew on here. But any fresh emotional weight that his character carries is undercut by the memory of his comically underwritten role in the 2014 film, in which the actor had little to do except pronounce the name “Godzilla” in a Japanese accent.
As the film’s subtitle hints, several of these titans — who include such favorites as the flying reptile Rodan and the queen of the monsters, Mothra — emerge ready to square off in a frenzied free-for-all to crown an alpha.
The movie establishes its visual tone early with the awakening of Godzilla’s archenemy Ghidorah, a three headed dragon-like creature who rises from the Antarctic ice. The two kaiju duke it out in a visually rich fight that maintains the pleasingly old-school aesthetic of the original Godzilla’s man-in-a-rubber-suit costuming, giving this CGI beast a very humanlike nature.
For a popcorn movie, all of this might be enough. Despite its plot holes, the film delivers thrilling action in spades. But hardcore devotees of the Godzilla mythology might prefer Japan’s most recent live-action spin on the monster: “Shin Godzilla,” a 2016 film that balanced a laser-focused “Veep”-esque story of government buffoonery with jaw-dropping destruction.
Stay tuned for the next entry in the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse: “Godzilla vs. King Kong” (scheduled for release in March 2020). You can put money on this: The showdown between two figures of movie lore will deliver the visual goods. As to whether the next installment also manages to remind us why those creatures matter in the first place, cross your fingers, but maybe don’t hold your breath.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of monster action, violence, destruction and some strong language. 131 minutes.