Godzilla vs. Kong (United States, 2021)March 30, 2021
This review contains spoilers, although if you have watched the trailers, you already know what the “spoilers” entail…
If you experience a sense of déjà vu while watching Godzilla vs. Kong, it’s probably not because of a flashback to the 1962 Japanese cheese-fest with a similar name and premise. Instead, it’s because the latest (and possibly final) installment of Warner Brothers’ “Monsterverse” series bears more than a passing resemblance to Michael Bay’s oft-derided (but financially successful) Transformers franchise. The elements are all the same: a focus on CGI giant creatures fighting one another, copious explosions and mass destruction (with no thought for the human toll), an overreliance on spectacle, and a menagerie of one-dimensional human characters who lack personality but are accorded far too much screen time.
On many levels, Godzilla vs. Kong is a better movie than King Kong vs. Godzilla, so why is it that the experience of watching the 1962 camp classic is more enjoyable? Some of it has to do with tone. The Japanese movie was silly and reveled in its silliness. While much of the humor was unintentional, the movie maintained a lighthearted approach and the admittedly horrible special effects added to its dubious charm. The 2021 movie is surprisingly dark and features destruction on a massive scale (Hong Kong being Ground Zero). While the monster battles are intense, they match one soulless combatant against another. Godzilla in particular has little personality, but that’s been a problem since he was brought back in 2014. He looks “off,” like he’s almost the real thing but not quite and the audio techs have never managed to get the roar right. And a 350-foot high Kong is as nonsensical as the idea that his “home” is in the middle of a hollowed-out core of the Earth. (How many tons of fruits and vegetables would he have to eat daily to maintain that weight?) In King Kong vs. Godzilla, the adversaries were a shade under 100 feet tall.
The screenplay could have been written by a precocious grade schooler, with the filmmakers making the cardinal mistake of believing they have a story worth telling. Admittedly, it’s not possible to expect the two monsters to pound on each other for two hours. (In actuality, the monster-on-monster violence totals no more than 20 minutes.) The movie is unfortunately much more about the human actors running around pretending like they have something to do, which they really don’t. In the end, except for a lame deus ex machina action, the trio of Millie Bobby Brown, Brian Tyree Henry, and Julian Dennison serves no purpose whatsoever beyond giving Godzilla a rooting section.
When it comes to choreographing and staging the CGI battles, director Adam Wingard, despite having previously made inexpensive (but well-regarded) horror films, shows that he has the chops to handle a big budget and its attendant eyeball-exploding spectacle moments. The first encounter between Kong and Godzilla, which transpires in the middle of the ocean and involves destroying a bunch of warships, is intense. The second meeting, which starts out as one-on-one combat before introducing Mechagodzilla into the mix, is about the best one could hope for as a climax. But the core problem remains: the humans are uninteresting and the monsters seem like what they are: extravagant special effects. As a cavalcade of highlight clips, it’s hard to imagine something more attention-catching. But as a movie… What works as a sizzle reel totaling three minutes shows its inherent shallowness when expanded to nearly two hours.
Kong is postulated to be the “good guy” in this struggle and, as such, he gets the most screen time and Wingard expends more capital anthropomorphizing him than Godzilla, who remains primarily a background force of nature. The movie opens with a wonderfully amusing scene of a huge Kong waking up on Skull Island and ambling out for his morning walk. This includes him scratching his backside. It’s the kind of scene that promises something light and fun but the simple charm of this isolated moment isn’t replicated. Later in the proceedings, when humor is wanted, the screenplay falls back on the annoyingly clownish behavior of the characters played by Henry (as a conspiracy theory podcaster) and Dennison.
The humans are divided into three camps. Returning characters Madison Russell (Brown) and her beleaguered dad (Kyle Chandler) are among those who can’t accept that Godzilla has suddenly turned evil after defending the world in Godzilla King of the Monsters. Madison sets out to prove that he’s still humanity’s defender. Meanwhile, Kong has developed a bond with eight-year-old deaf/mute Jia (Kaylee Hottle). His handlers, Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) and Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), seek to keep him isolated in a place below Godzilla’s Titan-seeking radar. Finally, there’s the group behind the development of Mechagodzilla, a robot creature designed for one purpose: killing Titans. They include billionaire Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), his daughter, Maya (Eiza Gonzalez), and “pilot” Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri). They are using the Ghidorah skull retrieved during the end credits of King of the Monsters to allow a human to control the mechanical monstrosity. What could possibly go wrong?
Godzilla vs. Kong offers a couple of callbacks to moments from the King’s lore. At one point, the film borrows from the ending of the DeLaurentiis remake by making use of a beating heart. There’s also a nod to King Kong vs. Godzilla when a massive jolt of electricity is needed to resuscitate Kong after a particularly nasty beat-down delivered by Godzilla. Die-hard fans will recognize these immediately; more casual viewers won’t.
I wonder how my eight-year-old self would have reacted to Godzilla vs. Kong. There was a time when I gobbled up anything with monsters, irrespective of the quality of special effects. I didn’t care about the level of destruction and took it as a necessity that the movie would sometimes become bogged down by focusing on underdeveloped humans and their silly concerns. I suspect I might have loved this film in all its overproduced glory. But what works for an eight-year-old doesn’t always work for someone who has evolved to expect more.
Godzilla vs. Kong (United States, 2021)
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Demian Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Lance Reddick, Julian Dennison, Eiza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri, Brian Tyree Henry, Rebecca Hall, Millie Bobby Brown, Kaylee Hottle
Home Release Date: 2021-06-15
Screenplay: Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein
Cinematography: Ben Seresin
Music: Junkie XL
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers/HBOMax