What do we want from the MonsterVerse, Warner Bros. and Legendary’s attempt to Marvel-ize the world of Godzilla, King Kong, and several other big beasties? The answer seems to be: big, loud, entertaining mayhem, and here comes Godzilla vs. Kong to hopefully deliver on that. Time and time again, when one of these movies comes out, they’re pilloried for their lackluster human characters. These criticisms are inevitably met with a defensive “Who cares?! I watch these movies for the monsters, not the people!”
This is a weak defense because ultimately, these movies are more about humans than they are monsters. It’s clear that the folks making these movies want the audience to care about the human characters. When 2014’s Godzilla arrived, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was cited as an inspiration by several people close to the production. But no one ever says, “I only watch Jaws for the shark!” It’s the human moments – Brody, Hooper, and Quint sharing drunken scar stories; etc. – that makes Jaws so special. If your monster movie is going to be primarily focused on humans with occasional bursts of monster action, you better make sure those humans are at least slightly interesting and relatable.
This problem plagues the MonsterVerse. Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla is full of haunting, downright terrifying imagery. It’s a film that knows exactly how to make Godzilla seem massive, destructive, and scary. But Godzilla is a supporting player in the film – he only pops-up in ten minutes’ worth of footage in a film that runs over two hours. That’s fine, in theory – the shark is only a supporting player in Jaws, after all. But unfortunately, Godzilla suffered from having some of the blandest blockbuster characters in recent memory. I dare you to even remember their character names.
Kong: Skull Island tried to rectify this by pumping-up the monster action and adding even more humans. They’re slightly more interesting than the humans in Godzilla, but not by much. Godzilla: King of the Monsters was the worst offender. It was a film with a potentially great premise: a scientist, played by the usually dependable Vera Farmiga, realizes that humanity has essentially blown it and it’s time to let the monsters – or titans, as this franchise officially calls them – restore balance via mass genocide. A chilling idea for sure, but King of the Monsters is so bogged down with nonsensical exposition and overloaded with boring characters – even Farmiga’s mad scientist is oddly dull – that it collapses under the weight of its bullshit. But fans were not to be deterred. The rallying cry came again: “So what? All I care about is the monster action!” King of the Monsters had plenty of that, sure – but it was represented via poorly filmed battles that were almost always cloaked by a curtain of rainfall. What good is monster action if we can’t even see it? The original Godzilla films may look cheaper by comparison with their men in rubber monster suits, but at least we can make out what’s happening on the screen.
Which brings us to Godzilla vs. Kong, the latest, and silliest entry in the series. Comparing this film, which is so unapologetically goofy, against the bleaker-than-bleak backdrop of the 2014 Godzilla is like comparing F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It. The movies don’t appear to even be part of the same physical universe let alone the same franchise. But as it turns out, this might be the secret sauce the MonsterVerse has needed all along. By abandoning the existential dread that was cooked into Edwards’s movie, Godzilla vs. Kong is able to make us finally stop caring that its human characters are duds. And make no mistake: the humans here are just as flat as the humans in the previous entries. But it ultimately doesn’t matter. At long last, the franchise seems to have become what the defenders have been crowing about: monster mayhem and nothing else. The franchise is no longer trying to be Jaws – it’s trying to be one of the Jaws sequels.
The plot, such as it is, involves humans using Kong, the massive ape who calls Skull Island home, to find a way into the Hollow Earth. That is, a place at the center of the Earth that features an entirely new world that sort of looks like ours, but a little weirder – there are mountain ranges on the sky, for instance, and gravity seems to be more of a suggestion than a natural phenomenon. Kong has spent a large chunk of his life living in a huge containment facility built on Skull Island. The facility has been decked-out to look like part of the island’s jungles, but Kong isn’t fooled – he’s onto the rouse, but he also doesn’t seem to entirely mind. Instead, he spends most of his days napping.
When he’s not napping he’s able to talk – via sign language – with Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a young orphan girl who is in the care of Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). Dr. Andrews has been dubbed “The Kong Whisperer” by the press, and she seems to know everything there is to know about the titan. Almost immediately, Godzilla vs. Kong runs into problems with these characters because we honestly have no idea who they are or what their deal is. Who is Jia? Where did she come from? Why does she have a special bond with Kong? Did Dr. Andrews know this when she adopted the kid? Is that why she adopted the child, to exploit her Kong skills? The movie doesn’t address any of this. Instead, Dr. Andrews is recruited by Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to get Kong to help find the Hollow Earth. Dr. Lind is an expert on the Hollow Earth, but that’s about the only character development the film seems fit to give him. Like Dr. Andrews and Jia (and everyone else, really), he’s just sort of there.
The mission to get to the Hollow Earth is being funded by Apex, an obscenely wealthy (and therefore clearly evil) company run by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir, who is having a lot of fun with his paper-thin character; I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a single scene where he’s not sipping from a glass of Scotch). Simmons wants to get to the Hollow Earth because there’s a magical power source there, and he wants to exploit it. If you’re thinking this all sounds very vague and kind of stupid, that’s because it is. Godzilla vs. Kong has no use for anything rooted in the real world – and why should it? It’s about two chonky monsters smashing shit up. Whether its the result of editing after test screenings or was the plan all along, Godzilla vs. Kong understands that no one is watching this movie for the human subplots anymore and therefore it’s okay to just breeze through them and cut down the exposition.
While all of this Hollow Earth hokum is going on, Godzilla is on the warpath. The titan has been missing in action for three years, but he suddenly pops-up and starts attacking places unprovked. Up until now, humanity had thought Godzilla was on their side, but now everyone is understandably panicked that this atomic lizard has gone rogue. But not everyone thinks Big G is a bad guy now. Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), a teenager we first met in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is convinced that Godzilla is still a hero at heart, and that someone, or something, is making the monster angry. Madison is practically a dyed-in-the-wool Godzilla cultist, angrily reprimanding her doubting father (Kyle Chandler, who has literally nothing to do here) and shouting, “How can you doubt Godzilla?!” How, indeed.
Madison ends up going on a side-quest to get to the bottom of what’s going on with Godzilla, dragging along her friend Josh (Julian Dennison, forced to deliver a stready stream of unfunny comic relief lines) and a monster conspiracy theory podcaster named Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry). This storyline is dreadful as we’re clobbered over the head with a glut of “quirky” details about Bernie – He makes his own hand sanitizer! He literally washes his body with bleach! – that are meant to pass for character development. Henry is a phenomenal actor but not even he is able to make this junk work. If this entire subplot had been left on the cutting room floor no one would miss it.
Everyone wants to keep Godzilla and Kong far apart, because the monsters apparenty have an ancient rivalry. They’re also both alphas, and as Dr. Andrews says, “There can’t be two alpha titans!” Of course, if Godzilla and Kong remained separated there wouldn’t be much of a movie, so it’s not long until the two monsters are going head to head, clashing in one big action sequenece after another. While the battle between the beasts is a big part of the movie, Godzilla remains mostly in the background here. He’ll come out of the sea for some wreckage but then slink away. This is primarily Kong’s movie, and it helps that Kong feels like a living, breathing being here. Director Adam Wingard is smart enough to make Kong a relatable, sympathetic character – in fact, he’s more relatable than any human in the entire movie. When Kong is first introduced here waking up, yawning, and then scratching his giant ass while Bobby Vinton croons “Over the Mountain Across the Sea,” it’s hard not to be immediately charmed and fall under the creature’s spell. Godzilla still feels truly otherworldly and monstrous, but Kong is like a lazy dude who is forced to fight even though he’d be much happier chilling out.
Wingard also wisely avoids covering up his monster action with heavy rain or confusing camera angles. There are multiple effects-driven moments that unfold in broad daylight, and a battle between Godzilla and Kong amidst the neon lights of Hong Kong is spectacular, even if you might be distracted wondering how much collateral damage these two big boys are inflicting. I missed the grandure and terror that was present in 2014’s Godzilla, but not much. Have these films just finally worn me down? Perhaps. But I think the secret to Godzilla vs. Kong‘s success is its ability to realize how stupid this all is. The seriousness in Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters has been completely jettisoned to make room for moments like the one where Kong rips another monster’s head off and then eats the goo inside, or like when Godzilla blasts his atomic breath straight into the ground until he literally burroughs into the center of the Earth. Godzilla vs. Kong is a film without pretensions. It knows exactly what it wants to do, and what it wants to do is have monsters smash buildings while they’re throwing punches at each other. It’s finally what this franchise has been building towards: a movie about monsters, not humans.
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