Cinema’s favorite monsters face-off for the first time in decades, but suffers from a fatal flaw.
It’s been a while since we’ve been treated to a summer blockbuster, especially one that features such classic characters with cult followings as King Kong and Godzilla. While I’m sure some are glad to be rid of the frequent bombardment of superhero movies and artificial graphics, I for one am glad to see cheesy action movies back and even on the big screen at that. For every great indie film, we need a “dumb” action movie to simply excite our senses and restore childlike wonder and Godzilla vs. Kong certainly doesn’t fail in that department.
From the moment the film fades in and we’re re-introduced to Kong as we follow him through his daily routine, I couldn’t help but involuntarily sustain a smile on my face. That wonder certainly extends to the diametrically opposed and terror-inducing introduction Godzilla has when he first appears in the film. There’s something majestic about this modern CGI take on an old classic that is both breathtaking and awe-inspiring. It’s in these diametrically opposed moments of the film’s opening that gives me hope that we may actually be in for something special, especially considering that the film’s director, Adam Wingard, has had solid experience making quality horror movies. Right from the start, Wingard ensures that previous films’ issue of not showing the monsters enough, for the most part, will be remedied. And the monsters continue to be on full display in all their glory, along with copious amounts of combat and unadulterated action, throughout the film. In fact, I’d say roughly a third of the film is devoted to nothing but combative titan action and every moment of it is magical and made me justify the trip out to the isolated IMAX theater for the screening.
However, while a third of the film is purely combative action and about an additional third of the film features the titular titans in some shape or form, the remainder of the scenes are sadly devoted to the human perspective of film and this is where the magic ends. Now, while this film does correct some of the errors of the previous film, it does carry over the tragically boring and pointless human characters and dialogue. No one is going to see a movie like this for the interpersonal dialogue and drama, but it so painfully dull that it serves as an anchor dragging this film to the depths of the sea. Every single time, almost without fail, when a monster-filled scene transitioned to one with just humans, I sighed. Each human character serves no other purpose than to be a plot point or an audible object the writers of the film manipulate to further the story. On top of that, the plot can only be described as laughable at best and barely coherent at worst. After screening this movie, I briefly discussed the plot with my fellow film writers before recording the Knockturnal Movie Club Podcast and I found myself struggling to describe the plot in a way that could make sense. Without spoilers, I’ll try to explain what I mean.
The human side of things can be broken up into two general parts: The “Millie Bobbie Brown conspiracy section” and the “Scientist Expedition section”. Without spoiling anything, the issue with Millie’s part of the film is that her and her band of merry conspiracy theorists lack credible motivation as to why they follow through with their dangerous plans. In some ways, I suppose this makes them seem much more like actual conspiracy theorists given recent history, but I digress. After all, she’s a child accompanied by another child (the equally wonderful Julian Dennison), and a slightly deranged podcaster. The world is not theirs to save nor is the film centered around them, yet they are compelled to a Joan of Arc like level of compulsion to go off and save the day. The “Scientist Expedition” portion of the film is equally awful. Rebecca Hall plays a monster specialist who’s spent years studying Kong, yet every single thing she claims to know about him and other titans, she eventually gets proven wrong, most often by her adoptive daughter, played by Kaylee Hottle. Worse yet is Alexander Skarsgård’s character who offers one piece of trivia in the first act of the film, then proceeds to play a terrified mannequin for the remainder of the film, which is a tragic use of this actor. To summarize my long-winded point, none of these human characters were needed in this story. Honestly, having a CNN-like crew narrate the events would’ve been cheaper and more effective storytelling and narrative device.
To be clear, I do not by any means intend to disparage the talent, ability, or performance of any of these actors as I feel most of these performers themselves are incredible. However, to rate these performances on any scale would be insulting to them. I’ll happily call out bad acting when it’s present, but the entire cast is held captive by an awful script filled with awful dialogue. That awful dialogue is, however, only the tip of the iceberg. What makes me rave and hand out glowing reviews to Marvel films like candy on Halloween is not the star power of their cast nor the ambition of the production, but rather the often-biting moral quandaries the films’ characters pose and attempt to answer. To call them simple ‘superhero’ movies is to discount the work of truly thoughtful and creative minds. While Infinity War is lauded as a historically ambitious crossover, what makes it a remarkable film are the characters, their motives, and the way they view the central question the film poses: How far are you willing to go to ensure the universe stays in balance? Thanos, Captain America, Tony Stark, and many more each have a different answer that propels the story forward in an emotionally entrenching way. In a moment of utter pathos, that film ingrained and forced such strong guttural emotions in the audience and even had some of us questioning, along with the characters themselves what we would’ve and how far we would have gone. Godzilla vs. Kong has no such message nor question for their audience.
I’ll be fair, I didn’t expect it to, but it refuses to stay completely silent on the topic and embrace its role a dumb and fun movie. It attempts to establish Godzilla, a monster that literally wipes out cities and years of human innovation without a second thought, as a hero without any of the meaning nor metaphor of the old classics. To further exacerbate this issue, this faulty and weak premise is the leading motivator of the events of this movie. These themes have been broached at in previous films but they’re muted here and in no way further developed. Kong is also hailed as some sort of majestic being, but he equally serves no role nor purpose in existing. In fact, both Godzilla and King Kong exist in a vacuum, in their own world outside of humanity. The message of the film can be summed up as “monster good, human bad”. And why is that the case? Perhaps we’ll know one day, but not in this cliché riddled film.
Aside from the script, the rest of the film is actually very passable. Direction may not be perfect, but Wingard perfectly frames Kong and Kaylee Hottle as the driving emotional force throughout the film and the only source of pathos that works in this story. For that to be the case and for these characters to essentially be mute simply shows the direction can hardly be the critical fault in the film. As for film editing, the fight scenes are great, but the lead-up to them oftentimes feels too much like a trailer for my liking. Sound editing was such a strange observation on my part. At times, it felt far too raw and uncut in a bad way, with high-pitched shrieks thrown in like tasteless jump scares. These are all minor gripes, but to add context, this is a film that was slated for a 2019/2020 release and got pushed back at first due to low box office turnout and then due to COVID. They had ample time to fix small issues in all departments, as Zack Snyder did with his version of Justice League, but chose to leave this movie as is.
With all that said, I’m actually left in a fairly peculiar place. Going into this film, I already had an idea of what I was going to say, but now I’m not sure I can honestly do that. Like many of you, I imagine, I haven’t been to a movie theater since 2019, well over a year ago. It may be a bit old-fashioned to say, but I believe a proper cinematic experience can only be had in a theater setting. The excitement of a shared experience with a crowd of people undergoing the same visual, audible, and mental stimulation is entirely unique and impossible to enumerate on an easy-to-digest scale. That intangible excitement is exactly the sort of thing that makes movie-going opportunities such as Godzilla vs. Kong such an enjoyable experience. Going into this film, I was going to say that this would be the perfect film to break that hiatus with, but it’s not. The human portions of this film are beyond dull and not worth suffering through, especially during the last throes of a pandemic. However, for the first and probably last time in my career as a film writer, I will highly recommend you stream this at home on HBO Max rather than go to a theater. This is a perfect movie to watch with friends, settle old debates, and start new ones on who truly is the king of the monsters. And just take my word for it and skim through the “human” portions of the film. You’ll thank me later. Overall, I’d say Godzilla vs Kong is a 6/10.