The MonsterVerse is a mixed bag. As an official welding together of the big screen’s two biggest giant-monster icons, Godzilla and King Kong, it mostly does what it needs to do, i.e. toss giant monsters at each other and get out of the way. But there’s a pretty wide range of quality in terms of the movies surrounding those monster fights. Kong: Skull Island is a charmingly berserk adventure-movie throwback, with a fun cast of memorable little characters. This puts it head and shoulders above the three Godzilla-led entries in the series, in which the characters range from inert to inane. But there are some truly awe-inspiring, almost cosmic monster visuals in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Godzilla vs. Kong has the lizard/ape action you crave.
The biggest disappointment in the series is its opening entry, 2014’s Godzilla, for two reasons. First, it hides its monster effects by staging its fights at night, an annoying maneuver also employed by Pacific Rim. Second, it fails completely to deliver on the horror promised by the Bryan Cranston–heavy trailer (not least by killing off Bryan Cranston after the second reel). One of the reasons the subsequent entry, Kong, feels so strong is because it does just the opposite: It focuses squarely on its best actors, roots itself in horror with genuinely gruesome kills, and shows us its titans clashing in glorious broad daylight.
So there’s a template to be followed for Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, the new TV show set in the MonsterVerse — a set of Giant Radioactive Do’s and Don’t’s already established by the franchise. What approach will showrunner Chris Black, who developed the show with Matt Fraction, wind up taking?
This pilot episode (“Aftermath”) makes it kind of hard to judge, honestly. Directed by Matt Shakman from a script by Black, it’s heavy on the human element, to mixed effect — most notably because it keeps the show’s biggest weapon, the double-casting of father and son duo Kurt and Wyatt Russell in the same role at different ages, off screen for now. Personally, if I had to fight Godzilla, I’d break out Kurt Russell out the first chance I get.
At any rate, Monarch stars Anna Sawai as Cate, a Japanese-American survivor of Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage a year or two earlier. (It’s now 2015.) She’s returning to her father’s native country to settle his affairs after his death, which was unrelated, though he bugged off under mysterious circumstances the moment he learned Cate and her mother had survived the attack.
Once in Japan, however, Cate discovers her father had a whole second family he was keeping a secret, including wife Emiko (Qyoko Kudo) and English-speaking son Kentaro (Ren Watabe). (It only later comes out that Cate speaks Japanese as fluently as Kentaro speaks English.)
Trying to get to the bottom of their dad’s secret life/lives, Cate and Kentaro put aside their differences long enough to retrieve a case from the wall safe in the office where he plied his mysterious trade. It’s the same case we see thrown into the ocean off Skull Island by Dr. Bill Randa (John Goodman, reprising his role from the Kong movie), a Monarch official, in a cold open set decades earlier. Their attempt to decrypt the files it contains via Kentaro’s ex, a programmer named May (Kiersey Clemons), pings the attention of a sketchy Monarch official in the present day (Joe Tippett).
Finally, in a separate flashback in Kazakhstan in 1959, we watch Cate’s Monarch-employee grandparents Keiko (Mari Yamamoto) and Billy (Anders Holm), along with their Army-escort buddy Lee Shaw (Wyatt Russell), discover a cache of giant insect eggs. These unconvincingly CGI’d critters then hatch and pull Keiko into a bottomless pit; I don’t know about you, but in a show about a gorilla the size of an NHL arena, I suspect that means she’s somewhat less than dead.
If none of these characters exactly reach out and grab you — and they don’t — what about the giant monsters? Their all too brief appearances aren’t bad. There’s a giant spider vs. giant crab fight with the fate of John Goodman hanging in the balance that feels straight out of Skull Island. Elsewhere, Godzilla’s accidental destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge gives us the grim sight of a school bus full of children plummeting to their deaths as Cate watches in horror — something closer in tone to the genuinely grim horror of kaiju movies like Cloverfield, The Host, The Mist, or the outstanding Shin Godzilla. (That last one, from Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, presents Godzilla as the Lovecraftian monstrosity the trailers for the American Godzilla made it look like we’d be getting Stateside.) But there’s way more arguing about bigamy than monster fights in this episode — again, not the decision I’d have made.
This is a two-episode premiere, though, so I’m not gonna get too worked up just yet. Creators and networks plan for this sort of thing, and there’s every possibility the second half goes hard on all the colossal chaos and carnage you could ever want. All that and Kurt Russell, too? I’m staying tuned.