After three movies and an hour and a half, ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ delivers

Awesome. Images courtesy Warner Bros.

8/10 Godzilla vs. Kong ends with a 20-minute sequence of Godzilla and King Kong beating the absolute tar out of each other, and that’s awesome. I mean, that part absolutely rules. But that’s 20 minutes out of 113, and that’s the issue with this entire strain of Godzilla movies – the human plotlines are still a majority of the film, and they are still awkward problems.  

Five years after Godzilla destroyed Boston in his battle with King Ghidorah, he suddenly and inexplicably assaults Apex Cybernetics’ facility in Pensacola, Florida. Fearing the leviathan will begin a reign of terror, cartographer Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), who believes that Godzilla and all the other titans come from a hollow in the center of the planet, leads a team to collect Kong and have him guide them into the hollow so they may harness Godzilla’s power source. Meanwhile, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), certain that Godzilla does not act randomly, hooks up with a whacko conspiracy podcaster to investigate Apex.

After three other movies over the past seven years, Godzilla vs. Kong finally capitalizes on what audiences really wanted out of this new strain of monster movies – goofy, over-the-top, popcorn-guzzling monster action. The fact that this is the main talking point, that they actually followed through with the crazy fight everyone wanted to see, paints a sad picture of how accustomed blockbuster audiences are to disappointment in recent years.

Consider the last movie with “versus” in the title, 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The titular fight lasts about five minutes, it’s dark and rainy and sad and hard to see, the flow of the fight is jerky and staccato and even the thought of any kind of fight choreography was moot because of the power differential between the characters. The theme of that film is the conflict between man and God, and Batman won’t shut up about it during the fight, whingeing endlessly in his billion-dollar robot suit about how much God took from him as he literally beats him over the head with a kitchen sink. It’s a sad, spiteful satire of the whole idea of doing this scene that openly mocks anyone who was earnestly excited to see it.

The beasts do battle in a Hong Kong drenched in neon, and boldly lit sets abound in the conspiracy plotline as well. This movie is fun to look at, another simple pleasure that’s become all to rare in modern blockbusters.

Godzilla’s epic showdown with Kong is absolutely nothing like that! It’s fast and aggressive and raw and brutal. Godzilla’s numerous tactical advantages immediately put Kong on the defensive, and the fight feels like it could end suddenly at any moment. Instead of shooting the action from a wide distance to get its full scope, the way you’d want a fight between people to be shot, they stick mostly to a low-angle, wide-lens look from the middle of the action, the perspective a normal person trapped in the middle of this might actually have, taking advantage of the fact that both of these monsters are completely computer generated to hold us in long takes and constantly panning from one to the other – because even with this big bug-eye lens, even from right next to both of them, these beasts are still too big to fit in the same shot. That captures the relative scope much more viscerally than simply shooting them next to some buildings would. It looks and feels like you would actually expect a fight to the death between two giant monsters who bitterly hate each other to look and feel.

And oh boy, do these two hate each other. Most of the emotion and expressiveness in the entire movie comes out in Godzilla’s and Kong’s rage at each other for merely existing, and you can really feel the toxicity and pride inherent in their reluctance to submit to each other. It recalls Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Tenet, these barely written full-throttle action movies that end up having some of the stronger characterizations in recent years because action and decision-making are so much more important to building characters than backstory. You don’t need all the pipe-laying about how whoever’s parents died or whatever’s girlfriend slept with which – you can’t carry backstory into the fight scene, that just sits at the front of the movie taking up time. What you need is onscreen emotion and intensity in the present moment, and Godzilla and Kong bring that in spades.

Batman v Superman wasn’t the first DCEU movie Godzilla vs. Kong brought to mind – that was the theatrical cut of Justice League, which immediately popped into my head when I saw Godzilla vs. Kong’s 113-minute runtime. You’d normally expect a big action blockbuster like this to be closer to 140. These series are both Warner Bros. properties, and Godzilla vs. Kong’s writing team first went to work in 2017 overlapping with Justice League’s famously troubled production, including former Warner CEO Kevin Tsujihara’s sudden mandate that the theatrical release be under two hours.

Instead of holding to some sort of false equivalence, Godzilla vs. Kong leans into the differences between the historic characters, both Kong’s capacity to be humanized and Godzilla’s numerous tactical advantages. When they finally engage, despite being giant monsters who can’t talk, there’s a real sense of rooting for Kong as an underdog and a perspective character.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that the Godzilla vs. Kong team was taking notes from the Justice League crew down the hall, because for the majority of its human-centric runtime, Godzilla vs. Kong feels like it was made with a lot of the same corporate mandates, just coming in pre-production instead of post-production. It seems built from the ground up to be under the 120-minute mark, curt instead of abbreviated. Taking this track doesn’t actually solve the problems presented by trying to tell essentially three full stories in less than two hours, especially when the only one viewers paid to see is tacked on at the end.

The 90-ish minutes of human stuff is not awful. There’s a significant amount of isolated Godzilla and Kong action and about a 10 minute sequence where Godzilla assaults Kong’s caravan in the South Pacific, that’s nice. There’s also plenty of wholesome Kong character development – Lind is traveling with him, his apparent ex-girlfriend Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adoped daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a mute girl who has bonded with Kong, so you get a graphic nuclear family and some nice built-in conflict created by the English/sign language barrier.

What’s really troublesome is the conspiracy plotline, a bizarre prance through a minefield of pre-Qanon conspiracy culture. This whole series has tried to have it every which way when it comes to this, leaning into real-world conspiracies, such as the Hollow Earth theory itself, and using them as an in-universe explanation for the monsters’ existence, while at the same time trying to poke surface-level fun at the types of crackpots whose nonsense they affirm. After four years of conspiracy culture being weaponized, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, I really wonder if they wouldn’t have given this plotline a second glance – or the decision to set the giant fight sequence in Hong Kong, which has been embroiled in cataclysmic pro-democracy protests for years now. The plotline irritates and lacks self-awareness even without that context.

This entire Godzilla series has distinct parallels to the DCEU going all the way back to their starts in 2014’s Godzilla and 2013’s Man of Steel, two dreary blockbusters from big-name directors Warner Bros. was trying to cultivate that didn’t understand what audiences wanted out of the experience, though Godzilla was a noticeably stronger film on its own merit, and I take every opportunity to recommend director Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. Where the DCEU explores individual reactions to God’s sudden appearance – well, one of the entries sort of tries to – Godzilla and its sequels explore societal reactions to a God who starts destroying cities but otherwise remains silent. Godzilla’s inscrutability as he destroys coastal cities is the central distressor of this series, as we can see it in Godzilla vs. Kong, with both human plotlines centered around trying to find a reason for his actions. It draws the series closer to specific anxieties about global warming.

DC and Marvel have gotten into a nasty habit of not completely finishing their animations, and Godzilla vs. Kong does not have that problem at all. Both our contenders are fully realized, detailed, expressive, harshly beautiful and perfectly lit against the neon backdrop.

The whole line of thought makes me yearn for 2013’s Pacific Rim, which was everything these Godzilla movies are trying to be and so much more. It’s drenched in the religious, psychological and sociological impacts of sharing a world with these things. With no specific franchise it’s continuing, there’s all sorts of crazy and new kaiju and mech designs, and desperate, satisfying monster action comes in early and often. You don’t have to wait three movies for there to be a really good one, they got really good ones in the opening credits.

Going even further back, it’s clear now that Batman Begins kind of broke Warner Bros. Batman and related media has been the studio’s North Star since around the time I was born, and the jarring shift in reception between 1997’s zany and unwatchable Batman & Robin and the grounded, hyper-realistic Batman Begins in 2005 seems to have been the guiding principal of most of their decisions ever since. After the Dark Knight series, Superman wasn’t allowed to be sunny and hopeful and Godzilla wasn’t allowed to be goofy and political.

Godzilla vs. Kong may be the studio’s first step out of this miasma.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to After three movies and an hour and a half, ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ delivers

  1. Pingback: ‘Mortal Kombat’ finally accepted as official first good video game movie | Reel Entropy

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