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Apple clearly isn’t shy about shelling out big bucks for its original series, and that generosity is on full display in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (premiering this Friday on Apple TV+), a grandly ambitious offshoot of the recent Godzilla film series that brings epic big-screen spectacle right into your living room. The monster effects here are absolutely eye-popping, but does the rest of the show live up to them?
After watching the first four episodes, my answer is: sort of.
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Monarch does its best to make the interpersonal drama as compelling as the monster attacks, but the human characters can’t help but be dwarfed by the special effects. If you want to see Kurt Russell fire off wisecracks while facing off against a giant ice beast, though, you’ve come to the right place.
With a sprawling story that spans decades and continents, Monarch takes place in the same universe as 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, in a world still scarred by the devastating monster attacks known as “G-Day.” (The city of Tokyo now has dedicated Godzilla shelters, and following an emergency, a calm voice instructs citizens to “please resume regular life.”) Pachinko’s Anna Sawai stars as Cate, who battles her own traumatic G-Day flashbacks as she heads to Tokyo to settle her dead father’s affairs. Her visit kicks off a mystery that reveals family secrets as well as a complicated conspiracy. As she teams up with new friends to uncover the truth, Monarch turns into a fairly standard chase story… only they’re not only running from the human enemy, but also atomic beasts with terrifying destructive power.
It’s to Monarch’s credit that the scenes of dialogue in between monster attacks are as intriguing as they are. In an ingenious bit of casting, Kurt Russell and his son Wyatt play the same role, decades apart, as Army officer Lee Shaw, who led a mission to document these majestic creatures back in the 1950s and then gets pulled out of retirement by Cate and company a half-century later. Kiersey Clemons (aka Iris in the big-screen version of The Flash) co-stars as computer geek May, who uses her techie skills to help unlock the mysteries of the past, and Workaholics alum Anders Holm plays a younger version of John Goodman’s Bill Randa from Kong: Skull Island. (Goodman himself pops up in an opening cameo running for his life from a towering arachnid.)
But let’s be honest: It’s the rip-roaring action scenes that are Monarch’s main selling point, with incredible scope and stunning cinematography. Director Matt Shakman knows how to deliver large-scale action from his time on Game of Thrones and WandaVision, and the monster effects are fantastic, with pulse-pounding bursts of action worthy of a big-budget blockbuster. The humans have to contend not only with Godzilla but also giant spiders, dragons and crabs. (Oh my!) It helps, too, that the early episodes take the time to let us get to know the characters, so the chaos isn’t just meaningless and free of any emotional stakes. This is high-level filmmaking, deftly conjuring up moments of sheer awe and terror.
Monarch’s story does get a little dense at times with lots of scientific lingo being thrown around, leaving us lost in the weeds. Plus, I have to admit my eyes glazed over with all the talk about the shadowy corporation called Monarch that secretly monitors the beasts. But Russell’s natural charm and sly sense of humor go a long way towards cutting through all that and making the whole thing work. (It’s hard to picture another actor who’d sound as natural shouting “Dinner time, you son of a bitch!” at a towering monster.) Thankfully, there’s at least one monster attack per episode that arrives like clockwork to make sure we’re still paying attention, and the astonishing effects on display make Monarch a journey well worth taking.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Monarch: Legacy of Monsters brings big-screen Godzilla action to TV in grand fashion, dazzling us even when the story gets too dense.