“Godzilla vs. Kong” basks in the ridiculous. It’s hell-bent on being as much of a good-bad movie as it is a good one. It’s smart enough to know exactly how to be a fun one.
This approach isn’t a given. The new Monsterverse, as it’s called, kicked off with 2014’s “Godzilla”. It wanted to present the mythic beast like a Cthulhian horror, a giant lurking in the darkness through most of the film. Those moments worked well, but it couldn’t really figure out anything else. It was undercut by inert writing and a near-complete lack of emotional connection to its lead characters.
“Kong: Skull Island” gave us our first glimpse of the new King Kong in 2017. It turned out to be a shockingly good anti-war film in monster movie clothing. There was immense life and tension to it, and it understood how to compose character-focused action sequences. It felt new and fresh, which is exceptionally rare in a big-budget action landscape that’s increasingly overfull.
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a personal favorite. It’s big and unwieldy, the lead is lacking, and it loses grasp of whatever ecological point it wants to make very early on. Why do I like it? The supporting cast is diverse, surpasses the leads, and really bites into their roles. The universe feels genuinely inhabited. The film treats these movie monsters with a sense of awe and wonder. It often makes them beautiful, and it achieves a level of iconography that does as much to make them terrifying as any visual effect can. It’s savvy enough to show us the destruction of these giant monster fights at ground level, which helps us believe their sheer size and scale.
That gets us to “Godzilla vs. Kong”. It does almost none of this. It is easily the biggest piece of nonsense of the bunch. Why shouldn’t it be? I don’t think you can make a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie any other way. It’s inherently ridiculous, so you may as well swing for the fences.
This is why you go out and get a director like Adam Wingard – for his ability to blend genre to joke. The first film of his I saw was 2011’s “You’re Next”. It was a horror movie where a family gets attacked by masked assailants, seemingly for no reason. Unfortunately for their attackers, one of the guests was raised as an Australian survivalist; i.e. not the kind that breaks the minute they discover they can’t get haircuts. She goes a mix of MacGyver and John Wick on them.
“You’re Next” piled cleverness on cleverness. It was a deeply effective horror movie with chilling moments of suspense and suggestion. It was also a satire of horror movies that rarely missed an opportunity for a wry sight gag or incredulous one-liner. But wait, that’s not all! It was also a mumblecore take on “The Lion in Winter”, that ultra-Millennial indie-style where every actor talks over each other in a natural way and you only half-catch the best lines thinking, “Did I hear that right?” It threw together so many disparate elements into one pot, mixing the retro with the trendy in a way that understood our love for each deeply, without treating either as sacred. It is an overlooked cult horror classic, and if you like horror movies, it’s a better use of your time than “Godzilla vs. Kong”.
That said, I really enjoyed “Godzilla vs. Kong”. It is pure nonsense. It is also exceptionally clever. It packs in countless cinematic references, often in ways that are effective within genre and intentionally hilarious out of it. The fights can be both tense and ludicrous. In one, Godzilla and Kong square off over a fleet of ships. Godzilla swims up from beneath, while Kong hops from one to the other. At one point, Godzilla gets half a ship hooked on his tail. The next shot where he drags it down beneath the waves is a shout-out to the Great White in “Jaws” impossibly dragging three barrels underwater with him. It’s simultaneously an effective moment of tension in the fight, and a genuinely funny sight gag.
In another scene, Kong and some futuristic hovering ships are falling through the air in a place where gravity inverts itself. The shot becomes a direct callback to the famous paratrooper scene in 2014’s “Godzilla”, where paratroopers streak red smoke trails through the air as they descend through the gloom into a wrecked San Francisco.
These are just two examples, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” is overflowing with these references and sight gags. I generally don’t like this approach. I thought “Ready Player One” was the worst thing I’ve read in my life because its references often felt like checklists, came across as narcissistic, and made up the entire landscape of the book. The read felt self-serving to the author, which is fine – go do you. As a reader, it felt like being stuck in a room with someone who wants to explain the complete discography of Nickelback to you: if the topic doesn’t hook you initially, nothing subsequent about it will.
By complete contrast, I appreciated what was done with this approach in “Godzilla vs. Kong”. Those references aren’t the landscape here – they contribute to the moment they’re in. If one doesn’t hook you, it doesn’t really matter because the pace of references is so quick. It comes across more like “Animaniacs”. The sight gag is there, you laugh, you’re done with it, let’s move onto the next one. That pace can be fun and rewarding, and you don’t have to get every single one for it to be doing the work of contributing to the scene.
This is all obviously a departure from the previous Monsterverse movies. That sense of looming, incomprehensible yet inevitable, Cthulhian threat in the dark? After an initial attack, it’s out the window. The extraordinary tug-of-war between calm and tension? You catch a brief glimpse of it as you drive past it at 80 mph. That sense of iconic awe and wonder? We could have that, or we can give Kong a big, glowy axe. “Godzilla vs. Kong” has enough of each element to let you know it could do it if it wanted to, before rushing on to the series of dad-joke sight gags it would rather make.
That’s OK, because what Adam Wingard gives us instead is a big, nonsense, Roland Emmerich-style film reminiscent of “2012”, “Independence Day”, or “The Day After Tomorrow”. It’s a throwback that recognizes what it’s throwing back to should never be taken very seriously. Just like those films, there’s a C-plot that means almost nothing – it’s just unfortunate this is what “Stranger Things” actress Millie Bobby Brown, “Atlanta” actor Brian Tyree Henry, and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” actor Julian Dennison get stuck with. I don’t think that’s a meta Emmerich-reference; it’s just a factor of wanting to keep Brown and her fame involved without finding anything productive for her character to do in the story.
That doesn’t really feel out-of-place. The helpless Navy officers have to be reminded at one point by a civilian that they have depth charges. The ace pilot of a futuristic craft meant to defy gravity wells is a college professor who expressly states he’s never even seen the craft or knows its technology. High-tech labs are broken into with nothing but a can-do spirit. Yeah, it’s ridiculous, it just doesn’t feel strange if you’re a lover of older giant monster movies. There’s something in “Godzilla vs. Kong” to reward just about everybody – from fans of classic monster movies to fans of these new ones, and even those who’ve never seen one before. There’s also something to make each group roll their eyes – often intentionally, sometimes not.
There are a few really beautiful moments for Kong as an animal and the last of his species – they come out of nowhere and leave just as quickly. There are some great, thunderous Godzilla moments. The humans…well, they’re there, I guess.
The film adds up to enjoyable nonsense, which I know I’m supposed to look down at, but sometimes a film is just really good at sticking all that nonsense together in a way that’s undeniably fun. Take Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” or James Wan’s “Aquaman” as solid comparisons. I don’t think this has the writing of “Ragnarok”, nor someone as skillfully self-effacing as Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, or Jason Momoa holding it all together. Its humor is more reliant on the director and the visuals, which can limit its breadth a bit. I don’t think it’s quite those films’ equal, and it has more failings than either, but it’s close enough to the same territory to offer a similar experience.
I’d still recommend last month’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” series (on Netflix) if you’re looking for something that’s character-focused and well-written. It delivers more faithfully on the intent, terror, and serious themes of a giant monster series. You ask me which project is better and I’m going to say it’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” without hesitation.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” is a fun distraction, especially if you’re a fan of giant monster movies. “Pacific Rim: The Black” carved out a lasting place in my soul as a storyteller.
You can watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” (as well as the previous Monsterverse movies) on HBO Max. I’d encourage you to watch it there as I did, and avoid the theater since we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
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Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Godzilla vs. Kong” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Millie Bobby Brown plays Madison Russell, Rebecca Hall plays Dr. Ilene Andrews, Kaylee Hottle plays a child she’s effectively adopted named Jia, and Eiza Gonzalez plays henchwoman Maya.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Ilene and Jia talk about each other. They also talk about Kong, as an animal under their care. Jia is Deaf, so she speaks with sign language. Ilene speaks to her using a mix of sign language and spoken dialogue, since Jia can lipread. Jia’s actress Kaylee Hottle is Deaf and comes from an all-Deaf family. I appreciated seeing that representation on film.
(As a note, Millie Bobby Brown is Deaf in one ear, but I’m unfamiliar with what kind of representation this holds in the Deaf community. It’s not mentioned as a facet of her character.)
Ilene and Maya share a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them quips. Madison is essentially isolated from the rest of the plot with two male comic relief characters, so her plot doesn’t pass questions 2 or 3.
This is a weird one because most of the supporting cast is men, but two of the three whose perspectives we’re asked to engage and feel most alongside are Ilene (Rebecca Hall) and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). That said, I don’t think “Godzilla vs. Kong” has much lasting interest in any of its characters. Dialogue is mostly plot set-up. Scenes are episodic without many interstitial “talking-while-we-get-there” moments. Characters are consistent, but their knowledge, qualifications, and who’s in charge of what seems to veer wildly from scene to scene.
I’d say it technically gets by because of Rebecca Hall’s scenes with Kaylee Hottle, but the most focus is put onto scenes with Rebecca Hall and Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown and her comic relief, and Skarsgard and the obvious villains.