When Dr. Emma Russell and her daughter are captured by eco-terrorists, monster-protection agency Monarch springs into action to try to rescue her, recruiting her estranged husband for the task in the process. Unfortunately for the fate of the planet, Emma has invented a machine which, in the wrong hands, could be used to wipe out all of humanity. Things get even worse when the mighty King Ghidorah is released from his icy prison, and only a certain green giant may be capable of stopping him from taking over the world.

Though it divided some audiences at the time, I was a pretty big supporter of 2014’s Godzilla. A serious–and also seriously fun–update of both the character and the kaiju genre, the film was an exhilarating experience, one in which the audience was asked to buckle up for a wild ride. What it may have lacked in, well, Godzilla, it more than made up for with spectacle and intrigue, providing a thrilling “you are there” quality to all the destruction and mayhem that is rarely seen in summer blockbusters. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed, as Disney was reportedly so happy when they saw the film that they gave director Gareth Edwards the job of helming their first Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.

So I not only welcomed the news of a sequel, I also fully expected to love it, especially since it was not only going to feature its titular monster, but also some of the most iconic creatures from his extended cinematic history, including the three-headed hydra creature King Ghidorah and the peace-loving Mothra. And while Godzilla: King of the Monsters does more or less deliver when it comes to its promise of big beast beatdowns, it’s also a surprisingly silly affair, feeling so different in tone from the last installment that it sometimes doesn’t play like a follow-up to it at all.

This is perhaps in no small part due to the “human drama” which is centered–sighs–around the search for a top secret government device which can be used to control monsters. Also involved this time around are human villains who are (wait for it) obsessed with stopping climate change, and think that letting King Ghidorah destroy human civilization will somehow be the answer. The monster-controlling device is also supposed to be so complicated that only Emma, its creator, is able to use it, but before the end of the film, a child is able to hack into it without any issues at all. And I haven’t even gotten to the part where a nuclear missile is set off in order to wake up Godzilla at one point.

All of this is not to say that the movie is “bad,” because it isn’t. And I have no issue whatsoever when Godzilla films get a little ridiculous, because that’s part of their charm (particularly when it comes to the Toho productions). The problem with how King of the Monsters handles its absurdity is that it refuses to own it, allowing itself to go more overboard than the last installment while still treating itself as though it’s making some profound statements about the earth and the human race, rarely embracing the fact that it’s a big summer popcorn flick.

Which brings us to the issue that the movie has a surprising lack of monsters despite being one in which everyone is always talking about them. Mothra, featured prominently in the trailers, is barely present here, and the winged Rodan also isn’t given much to do. Godzilla himself does get a lot more screen time for this outing, but he appears somewhat sporadically, showing up anywhere he wants to because of “underwater whirlpool tunnels” that allow for him to travel around the world at a tremendous speed. Again, it would help the film greatly if it took advantage of its own ludicrous nature, instead of constantly trying to maintain a straight face.

The cast–which consists almost entirely of new members–does the best that they can with what they’re given, with Game of Thrones veteran Charles Dance being all but wasted as one of the main bad guys. Why have Tywin Lannister himself in your movie if you’re not going to give him some scenery to chew? Vera Farmiga, meanwhile, struggles to work with the “complicated” Emma, but her character behaves so foolishly that it becomes difficult when the film attempts to make her sympathetic. Get Out’s Bradley Whitford gets to have fun as the comic relief, while Ken Watanabe–one of the only returning faces from the the 2014 flick–continues to bring the appropriate amount of dignity and gravitas to his Godzilla-loving professor.

But let’s talk about what does work in King of the Monsters: the monsters themselves. They all look incredibly cool, with Mothra coming across as fittingly ethereal and Ghidorah being a terrifying force of nature. Rodan, though underused, does get to swoop around and cause some chaos, even swallowing a poor fighter pilot alive just after he uses his ejector seat. And whenever Godzilla gets to lock heads with them, it’s the kind of big stomping carnage you hope for in such a film, particularly when he has to face off against each of Ghidorah’s heads at once. And just like in the 2014 movie, Godzilla gets to be the hero here, so the audience gets to cheer him on with every punch or gust of fiery breath he throws.

And for that reason, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is ultimately worth experiencing on the big screen, even if it ultimately falls short when compared to several recent monster films, including last year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the actually quite fun Rampage. It’s too bad the human drama doesn’t work better here, but at least it doesn’t do anything to lessen anticipation for next year’s Godzilla Vs. Kong. Let’s just hope that next time they allow for the titans to be the stars of the show.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment
May 31st, 2019
132 minutes
Rated PG-13
Directed by Michael Dougherty