Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters follows a group of really boring people as monsters sometimes fight in the background or, in rare moments where the filmmakers suddenly realize why we’re there, the foreground. This is a film that negates its own power in several ways. The title and advertising suggests epic battles among giant, world-threatening creatures, and it fails at so many of these concepts.

After Godzilla 2014 spent a bit too much time to reach the monster, this new one is eager to jump right in. However, that doesn’t stop the film from having several extended sequences where not much is happening. The human characters are really dull and sometimes infuriatingly dumb, causing every scene that focuses on them to be a total slog.

You’d hope this would be balanced by the creatures, but Dougherty seems resistant to let us linger. We get a few magnificent wide shots of these titans, but these mostly act as establishment. So many of the battles devolve into repetitive light shows, creatures firing beams of energy at each other; there isn’t nearly as much direct physical impact as there should be. These shots are rarely framed to capture both creatures at once, and most shots simply add up to a CGI creature framed against an empty sky. Unfortunately, many of the action scenes are as sluggish as the drama.

Being a Godzilla film, this goes beyond action and drama and belongs to the more specific monster/Kaiju movie category. The highlights of this genre largely stem from creatures threatening population centers. King of the Monsters has a few scared civilians scattered about, but so much of the human plot involves preparing enough to lure the threat elsewhere. Additionally, it’s mainly framed through people who are comparatively prepared for the attacks, reducing the tension.

As such, I’m not sure who this film is for; there are better stories about surviving a monster attack from the ground level, films that have truly dynamic battles battles between titans, and films that capture the terror of a city under attack. King of the Monsters really offers nothing exceptional.

Everything about this suggests an American studio afraid to tackle actual catastrophes. This gets highlighted by the structure of the final act; they completely undermine King Ghidorah by having him struggle to hunt down single human characters while in a seemingly empty city.

I really can’t emphasize enough how bad the human characters are. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) is among the most misguided characters I’ve encountered, coming up with the brilliant plan to awaken the creatures to…save the world from humanity’s environmental destruction? The film presents this as if she put legitimate thought behind her actions and isn’t just a genocidal maniac; she’s essentially a poor version of Thanos. The fact her decisions drive most of the plot might explain why the stakes are so consistently fumbled; I can’t attach meaning to the battles when what causes them is so very, very dumb. Her actions only make sense in the context of a studio desperate to explain why all these creatures are waking at the same time. Why can’t “just because” ever be enough?

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a generic summer blockbuster, an action film that tries to emphasize visual effects while failing on most other technical grounds, all while telling a poorly conceived story. There’s no real reason to check this out unless you can’t get enough monster movies in your life.

2 Stars Out of 5

Review: Ma (2019)

Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers, a young actress I only just encountered in last week’s Booksmart) moves to a new town with her mother and immediately gets invited to hang with the cool kids. While dredging around to get someone to buy them alcohol, she meets Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), an apparently kind older woman who invites them to party in her basement after they’re busted. What no one realizes is that Sue Ann is the one who informed on them, the first of her many manipulations.

Ma is a surprisingly strong concept; there’s so much room here for subtle engineering on the part of Sue Ann, a woman who can piece together the group’s social fears while exploiting the fact they’re unlikely to tell their parents. Such a premise allows for a truly unique horror villain, one who is otherwise an ordinary person. Unfortunately, such a concept would require a certain subtlety to the actions of the antogonist – Ma seems to skip a necessary middle step in getting from light paranoia to full-on insanity.

The problems here largely fall back on the writing (as it does with many films that sell themselves purely off concept). The dialogue is supremely shallow; we spend so much of this movie operating as a teen drama, but these teenagers don’t seem to have real character beyond their narrative function. Story progression is similarly lacking.

Several scenes feel unnecessary. When the group first invites Maggie to join in, she tells them her mother is taking her to a music festival. The very next scene finds her mother saying she has to cover someone’s shift that night, therefore freeing Maggie up. Why present the music festival as an obstacle and then immediately negate it? Moments like these add little more than a minute to the movie’s length.

When we finally get to Sue Ann as a central focus, we start getting short flashbacks to her own time in high school, implying something must have happened to cause her current actions. These moments really don’t work for me – they feel like a cheap tactic to garner sympathy, but I think it would have been more effective as mere implication. The movie makes it very clear she’s targeting the children of her childhood tormentors; why not let us fill in the blanks? Knowing exactly what happens really adds nothing and might even detract; it carries some unfortunate implications about how the writers view trauma.

All of this adds up to a film that seems unsure of its own purpose; it devotes so much time to characters it isn’t really establishing and seems to undermine the presentation of its villain. The average horror film doesn’t necessarily need the most well-defined characters; the problem here is that the concept is based around social connections and communication failures. Even the final horrors seem directly tied into how the characters present themselves, but their lack of definition means it really doesn’t earn those moments.

The big highlight here is, naturally, watching Octavia Spencer play so hard against type. She completely hams it up; if Ma is an unsuccessful film, it has just enough camp to potentially linger as a minor cult hit.

Another nice detail here is that this is a rare horror film that largely lets the protagonists guide the narrative. Maggie and her friends are choosing to be present, even as the stakes keep rising. Unfortunately, this also highlights what’s lacking, since this would be so much more engaging if they were better defined.

In the end, I had fun with Ma, but it’s a film that could have been so much more in either direction. It’s not quite absurd enough to be a truly joyous midnight movie while too poorly structured to be a legitimate horror. It’s shapelessly mundane.

2.5 Stars Out of 5