It may lack the hysteria and acclaim associated with the Marvel juggernaut but the Legendary-Warner Bros MonsterVerse series, which draws on the startling destructive power of stop-motion veterans Godzilla, King Kong and their fellow travellers, does not want for for glitz or budget.
In 2014, the latest Hollywood reboot of Toho's Godzilla franchise (following 1998's turgid effort) hit screens courtesy of Monsters and Rogue One director Gareth Edwards. Predictably grand, aesthetically impressive and blessed with a fine cast, the film was a box office success. That said, its unremarkable plotting did not linger long in the memory; nor did the finale's obligatory epic-level urban devastation, courtesy of expensive effects — all as common now as Nigel Farage on Question Time.
Kong's time in the sun arrived three years later, his star vehicle a silly, over-engineered retro piece that imagined itself far cooler than it actually was while ably capturing the power, fury and majesty of its central player.
The third volume, Godzilla: King of Monsters, now hits the summer season in the wake churned up by the final Avengers instalment. Given the state of what's on offer here, it is in those foamy waters that this movie is likely to sink.
A globe-trotting plot, veering from theme to theme, comes replete with expository dialogue and absent the merest drop of emotional investment in any single character, real or digital. Michael Dougherty's expensively assembled behemoth bowl may occasionally dazzle with some startling visuals, pulling no punches with its often relentless kaiju-on-kaiju combat, but beneath that cacophony there exists little to recommend it. Hollow, boring and, even for a picture centred on massive CGI beasts trying to kill us all, increasingly silly, there is little here worth recommending.
The story picks up in the debris of the eponymous lizard's march through San Francisco in film one, an episode that decimated the lives of scientists Mark and Emma Russell (played by Kyle Chandler and Verma Farmiga, respectively). Now divorced, Mark lives in the American wilderness, photographing wolves, while Emma and their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, of Stranger Things fame), are holed up in China. Emma works for global monster-hunting outfit Monarch (the common thread in this particular cinematic universe), which oversees a stash of hibernating giants — or Titans, to use the film's parlance — and seeks to control their behaviour, through bioacoustics, using Emma's new gadget, the Orca.
Funnily enough, none of this goes to plan and Emma, along with Madison, falls into the clutches of Charles Dance's gimlet-eyed 'eco-terrorist', whose goal of wreaking global havoc and restoring nature's dominance is funded by trafficking in Titan DNA.
Mark is recruited by Monarch to help in its quest to reclaim the Orca and retrieve his family, all while glowering ruefully in the direction Godzilla, whose perceived benevolence is a constant, cack-handed question throughout, every time the mighty colossus appears on screen.
Aiding him in this endeavour is a seemingly endless assortment of dull allies. There's the all-action, no-space-for-details warrior bods (O'Shea Jackson, Aisha Hinds, David Strathairn), as well as a collection of movie-scientist stereotypes. Bradley Whitford plays it cool and cracks wise as a silver-haired crypto-sonographer; Sally Hawkins is a sensitive zoologist. Thomas Middleditch phones it in as the awkward-comedy foil and Zhang Ziyi, an ethereal mythologist who counters global catastrophes with photos of cave drawings, is revealed, clumsily and for no apparent reason, to be one of two twins floating around the edges of the tale. Only Ken Watanabe, a survivor, like Hawkins, of Godzilla, makes much of an impression, his sage presence an antidote to the thundering din around him. Indeed, his trip into the depths of Godzilla's Atlantis-like lair — a casually bonkers sub-plot — serves as a rare standout moment.
Across continents and oceans, this band of mostly forgettable heroes zips to and fro, all with the help of some swish kit, including a flying aircraft carrier — courtesy, surely, of the military-industrial complex — that handles like a Spitfire, and just-ask access to an entire armada of American war machines. Late on, they're even handed a stray nuke because, as Donald Trump says, there's no point in having these things if you're unwilling to use them.
A mid-point twist, of sorts, complicates an overwrought family drama that threatens to obliterate everything around it, such as the awakening of various world-ending demons that lie dormant in Monarch's network of strangely insecure secret facilities. It feeds into a nefarious scheme to deliver Earth back to Gaia by unleashing the Titans, and their associated regenerative radiation, on the planet.
If it all sounds slightly anarchic, worry not. Dance and friends are suddenly jettisoned long before the end, their villainy replaced by King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon bearing the moniker 'Monster Zero' and Godzilla's rival for the alpha slot atop the super-species hierarchy. Yet, by the time these two go head to head, nobody will be watching anything they haven't seen before.
Buildings fall, fires rage and leviathans brawl. Granted, as a spectacle, its vaguely thrilling, and Dougherty does not scrimp when it comes to conveying a sense of scale and impact. Equally, it accomplishes nothing new. Instead, in its money-shot moments, King of the Monsters, represents a mere retread of what's gone before. There may be traditions to observe but this film seems skittish about reaching beyond its familiar genre tropes in particular and those of the modern-day blockbusters more generally.
Sure, Godzilla himself, beautifully rendered, retains a certain air of mystery and depth — is he friend or foe, tyrant or leader? — but that's where the nuance ends. Do yourself a favour and skip over this in the listings.