Written by: Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields (story), Eric Pearson & Max Borenstein (screenplay)
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, and Rebecca Hall
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"The myths are real. There was a war. And they're the last ones standing."
We’re seven years and four movies into the Monsterverse now, but I think this franchise’s best, most iconic moment came in the first entry, Gareth Edwards’s terrific Godzilla resurrection. Just as that film swells to its climax by bringing Godzilla and his foe Muto face-to-face, Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa declares “let them fight” in a rousing moment that became an instant meme. But it did so for a reason: after nearly 90 minutes of teasing this brawl, Edwards had the audience salivating for these two monsters to just beat the absolute hell out of each other. And despite this particular director’s relative restraint, “let them fight!” basically became the mantra of the Monsterverse. If nothing else, this series of movies recognizes that its audience craves monster mayhem, and each subsequent entry has been more obliging in letting giant creatures go wild.
It was inevitable, then, that this franchise would culminate in the most obvious crossover event: Godzilla vs. Kong, a remake that’s technically been nearly 60 years in the making. Delivering the return bout is Adam Wingard, now fully graduated from the indie scene to helming one of the biggest blockbuster events in recent years. You love to see it because he’s one of us, a diehard monster kid who’s been unleashed in the ultimate sandbox. It’s the type of opportunity most of us can only dream of, and, to Wingard’s credit, he hasn’t squandered the chance. He takes some big swings with Godzilla vs. Kong, the breeziest and silliest of the Monsterverse bunch so far. That’s not a dig, either: this entry goes full Saturday morning cartoon, where concerns about a slapdash plot and one-dimensional characters are drowned out by the desire to watch two icons smack each other around candy-colored landscapes. I’m not saying you have to turn your brain off when you enter the auditorium (or click “play,” I guess), but you should prepare for Wingard and company to target the lizard part of your brain for 105 minutes of monster movie bliss.
Even though the story is really right there in the title, Godzilla vs. Kong does rely on some elaborate table-setting. Set five years after King of the Monsters, it finds Godzilla going rogue by attacking a cybernetics company in Pensacola, leading most of humanity to wonder why their protector has grown aggressive. Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) isn’t convinced this is the case, so she teams up with her buddy Josh (Julian Dennison) and a conspiracy podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry) to uncover just what Apex Cybernetics is doing to provoke Godzilla. Meanwhile, Kong is living a less than idyllic life at Monarch’s Skull Island outpost, where he spends his days rummaging around a domed simulation of his homeland to prevent him from encountering Godzilla. However, his captors feel compelled to risk it when Apex’s CEO (Demián Bichir) finds a primitive power source in the fabled Hollow Earth. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, they hope Kong will serve as a tour guide and lead a mass exodus back to the Titans’ ancestral homeland, leaving humanity to rule the surface once again.
It makes for an unexpectedly labyrinthine plot, all things considered, especially when the 1962 movie was essentially a redux of the original King Kong guest-starring a randomly unthawed Godzilla. But like that film—or most monster mashes, really—the narrative gymnastics are mostly incidental anyway. All that’s really required is that it puts the titular titans on a collision course and that the advertised bout delivers. It mostly accomplishes both, and while that main event is the chief concern of a film titled Godzilla vs Kong, I can’t help but appreciate all of the embellishments in the undercard, as it were. Screenwriters Max Borenstein and Eric Pearson have embraced the weird, wild potential of this film’s Toho roots, sometimes flashing the kind of untamed imagination that powered the glorious highs of the Showa era.
Characters literally jaunt through the planet in neon anti-gravity vehicles that look like they’ve been ripped out of a lost Tron sequel, while others bounce around in some kind of hyperloop capable of connecting Pensacola to Hong Kong within minutes. The Hollow Earth is like the old Monster Island on steroids, a vast terrain crawling with prehistoric beasts that mostly exist to give Kong an excuse to whip one pterodactyl’s ass by slinging another pterodactyl at it. Relics and shrines hint at an ancient backstory involving Kong and Godzilla’s ancestors that sets your imagination on fire—I want an entire prequel about the origins of the Titans in this ancestral homeland, even if that means it couldn’t possibly involve any human characters.
Maybe that isn’t so hard to imagine. After all, the Monsterverse has been trending in this direction already: in the space of the previous three films, we’ve gone from Edwards dwelling on the humans to the point of some consternation in the audience to Mike Dougherty staging so much monster action that his characters were criticized as thinly-sketched exposition machines. Let’s just say that Godzilla vs. Kong doesn’t strike a balance: the characters are as disposable as they’ve ever been, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that some cast members were only on-set for a few days. The dialogue alternates between functional exposition and flat quips that leave you wondering how they couldn’t find a way to punch up the script after King of the Monsters similarly suffered.
Conventional wisdom dictates that this must be bad and made only worse by the sensation that you’re watching two completely different movies unfold: one’s a conspiratorial thriller where an unlikely team uncovers an insidious corporate plot (that goes exactly where you expect its techno-subterfuge and megalomaniacal corporate overlords to take you), while the other’s a high fantasy adventure where King Kong literally ascends a throne. Many of the human characters from each thread never interact with each other in any meaningful way, so the entire movie feels a little disjointed and tonally dissonant as it whiplashes back and forth. Imagine somehow you’re riding a roller coaster that somehow turns into a completely different roller coaster about halfway through the ride—that’s Godzilla vs. Kong.
Again, I get it if this sounds off-putting or maybe even downright unpleasant. Just know that I can’t share the sentiment, not when Godzilla vs. Kong joins its threads in one of the most breathtakingly absurd moments in recent memory. At some point just before the climax, Godzilla turns his atomic breath downwards to burrow a hole clean through to the Hollow Earth, where Kong is none to pleased at the intrusion. The two share a look and roar—which I assume is a little Kaiju shit-talking—before Kong leaps all the way back to the surface to do battle with the King of the Monsters. Physics and logic be damned, I was utterly enthralled by this silliness. Godzilla vs. Kong often embraces these narrative shortcuts in the interest of emphasizing the action promised by its title. You know what you’re in for early on, when the Skull Island team insists they have to load Kong onto a boat, and the scene immediately cuts to him sedated and held captive. Wingard and company know you’ve seen this before, so they don’t dwell on any extra fat that keeps either of the monsters from causing some kind of destruction, either on their own or together.
Of course, Wingard reserves most of the fun for the latter scenario, when Godzilla and Kong share the screen. It’s every bit as epic as it deserves, with their two throwdowns often splashing onto the frame like some kind of Homeric tableau. The titans tower over all of it, looming figures befitting of ancient mythology, and Wingard shoots it with an unparalleled clarity, at least for this series. Any qualms about previous entries unfolding in a perpetual cloud of murky dust or under night skies don’t apply here: their first bout is staged in broad daylight on the high seas, while the return match sprawls through the neon-soaked Hong Kong landscape.
In either scenario, the emphasis is on capturing the action with meticulous compositions and top-notch effects work. Best described as controlled chaos, the action is frenetic and busy, but never incoherent—and it’s full of staggeringly cool moments. In an era where it feels like every blockbuster inevitably degenerates into numbing CGI maelstroms, it says a lot that Godzilla vs. Kong stages some impressive visuals as its beasts find intricate ways to lay waste to each other. Watching it reminded me of the best way to appreciate pro wrestling: even if you likely know the outcome (and, again, I can’t emphasize enough that the story hits all of the expected, crowd-pleasing beats), you find a balletic beauty in the brawling. The fight choreography prioritizes the kind of awe you crave when the two most famous movie monsters of all-time collide, and it’s easy to imagine everyone involved bouncing ideas off of each other like a bunch of kids on a sugar rush smashing toys together, the echoes of “let them fight” reverberating throughout their sandbox.
There’s perhaps an argument to be made that Godzilla vs. Kong feels a little too much like a trifle—at 113 minutes, it’s the shortest of the Monsterverse outings so far, and it often feels lightweight as it bounds through the motions. But I prefer to think of it as being light on its feet, a virtue that too few blockbusters extoll these days, when everything has to be treated with an almost ponderous reverence. This is a movie that knows what it is, and it reserves that reverence for its monsters; what the film might lack in memorable humans, it more than makes up for with the personality injected into its title characters. Kong is a weary bruiser who’s maybe a little too tired and old for this shit but continues into the fray anyway because it’s all he knows: he might ultimately pine for the peace of home, but it’s in his DNA to fight. He’s essentially an 80s action hero, larger than life yet somehow shadowed by vulnerability and weariness. On the other hand, Godzilla is more like a force of nature who begrudgingly acknowledges Kong as a fellow alpha, and the subtle personality clash faintly recalls the stuff of buddy cop movies, especially when the two battle a common enemy.
I suppose it’s fair to question whether or not Godzilla and Kong—two pillars in the monster movie tradition of exploring socio-cultural subtexts—should be reduced to digital toys in a sandbox. Godzilla especially has much more contemplative roots as a reflection of Japan’s post-atomic anxieties, while Kong himself can be seen as an obvious (but perhaps more unwitting) allegory for exploitation and imperialism. Having him trample through one of the world’s most infamously colonized cities (often at the behest of a deaf Skull Island native girl) here is quite a choice. Godzilla vs. Kong squashes all of these concerns firmly under its perpetually stomping feet, taking its two monsters about as far away from their roots as you can imagine. But it’s also fair to point out that this has already happened in the decades since each monster burst onto the screen thanks to various reimaginings and reboots. Godzilla, especially, is something like a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle: as soon as Toho turned him into Japan’s protector and pitted him against other strange beasts, there was no outrunning the cultural memory of him as a hero, despite several attempts at correcting course. These creatures have always been somewhat malleable, molded to serve whatever picture they star in for decades, so this latest iteration is very much in the tradition.
In fact, the Monsterverse has been a nice jukebox compilation of sorts, with each film providing a nice sampling of Godzilla through the years. If Edwards briefly harnessed the character’s horror roots and Dougherty indulged the aesthetic of the Heisei era, then Wingard has captured the Showa films that cemented Godzilla’s popularity, where kids became the target audience. Taken as a whole, the Monsterverse has been a reminder that reimaginings are endemic to icons like this, and sometimes it doesn’t work in your favor (you all know I’ve had plenty to say about Rob Zombie’s Halloween over the years). But sometimes the needle lands right in your wheelhouse, as it has for me in all four Monsterverse movies to date. Sometimes, it really just comes down to what tickles your lizard brain, and maybe it’s okay to admit that, just as it’s okay to admit that doing so involves overlooking flaws or even privileged to do so. Maybe it’s less about determining the “right” way to consume this stuff and its discourse and more about actually having a discourse that acknowledges everything hits everyone in a different way. But I’d like to think we can all come together and acknowledge that it's pretty damn cool when King Kong hurls a fighter jet at Godzilla.
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