I have a theory, which has come into focus in recent years, that everyone has at least one piece of silly entertainment which they carry by their hearts for their entire lives. When I say this, I am specifically not referring to “fandom,” that increasingly toxic notion of possession and quote-unquote “community” which has driven grown adults in recent years to do truly despicable things in the name of Ghostbusters or Star Wars or whatever. The type of enjoyment I’m thinking of here is something more primal, more childlike: a text or character which you respond to with the same pure, simple joy that you did when you were very young, without giving it much deeper thought or attempting to rationalize it with any dubious “mature” significance. Maybe for you it’s Batman, or Sailor Moon, or James Bond, or the image of the pre-psychedelic Beatles, or any number of other eminently appealing icons. I have yet to do any formal research on this subject, but I suspect that the common thread is this: they are the first things to make you mutter “cooool” to yourself under your breath.
For me, this silly little source of wonder is, and likely will be until I die, Godzilla. As an adult and as a film critic, I am perfectly aware that Godzilla movies are not, by and large, “good.”* The plots are silly and often nonsensical; the monsters are clearly stuntmen stomping around in often desiccated rubber suits; and the bulk of the destruction-derby money shots are usually reserved for the last act, the opening hour padded with seemingly irrelevant human plots about spies or aliens or some other nonsense. Absolutely none of this matters– if anything, these obvious flaws only add to the series’ doofy pleasures. I don’t watch a Godzilla movie for the plot, or for anything approaching capital-C Cinema. I watch them because few things make me happy like a big, dumb monster mash with that big, green lummox breaking hundreds of neat little toy cars and plywood buildings. They may not be good, but they sure are great.
So please understand where I’m coming from as I embark on this positive review of Godzilla vs. Kong. Is it a “good movie,” in the way that The Irishman or Nomadland are good movies, or even something like The Dark Knight? Of course it fucking isn’t. Did I stop smiling at any point in its two-hour run time? Again, the answer is no.
Godzilla vs. Kong is the latest entry in Legendary Pictures’ attempt to fashion Godzilla and his pals into a Marvel-style “shared universe.” For those who missed the film’s predecessors (2014’s Godzilla, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters), the basic idea is that a couple of dozen giant beasties called “Titans” (presumably because Guillermo del Toro already claimed “Kaiju” for Pacific Rim) have crawled out of the earth’s crust all over the globe and are being monitored by a shadowy government organization called Monarch, and an equally shadowy corporation called Apex Cybernetics. At the film’s outset, Godzilla (who, in the previous two films, has settled into a sort of chaotic-good protector-of-earth role) smashes up an Apex lab, calling into question whether humanity can trust this enormous, fire-breathing dinosaur. To combat Godzilla, Apex president Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir, doing his best Ricardo Montalbán) calls upon hollow-earth conspiracy theorist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to take him to a mysterious power source at the center of the earth. Working under the assumption that this underground miasma is the Titans’ origin point, they recruit King Kong, who has apparently been under house arrest since the ‘70s-set Skull Island, as their guide, as well as his handler, the Goodallian primatologist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her Deaf, adopted daughter, Jia (the genuinely adorable Kaylee Hottle). However, Kong and Godzilla apparently hold a millennia-long blood feud, and it’s only a matter of time before the radicalized thunder lizard is hot on their trail.
This plot, you may have noticed, is complete nonsense, as is the Godzilla Cinematic Universe’s weirdly byzantine mythology. The good news is that it doesn’t matter. While there’s a lot of exposition in this movie, I choose to view it less as plot than as texture, the idea that there’s some sort of portentous reality underneath the mayhem on screen.The human plot is, to be sure, overstuffed (I didn’t even mention the subplot in which series holdover Millie Bobby Brown and conspiracy-podcaster Brian Tyree Henry break into a top-secret lab to discover a not-so-secret third monster), but it’s all part of the formula; if you’re going to judge giant monster movies based on what the humans are doing, then perhaps this is not the genre for you. It doesn’t matter what the scientists babble about elder gods and the hollow earth and ancient mega-batteries, it only matters that they babble.
What makes the American Godzilla/Kong pictures the just-above-average summer blockbusters they are is that they understand exactly what they need to be, which is to say, good-pulpy sci-fi adventures in which famous monsters punch other monsters in the face. Skull Island is a surprisingly weird film which essentially cops the setting and structure of Apocalypse Now, but swaps in King Kong for Marlon Brando; King of the Monsters, meanwhile, ends with the glorious visual of Godzilla and friends kicking the shit out of Boston (I can’t say I fully disagree with our own Kyle Brunet’s take on the movie, but I also can’t pretend I didn’t pay to see it twice). Director Adam Wingard (previously of the excellent You’re Next and The Guest) clearly knows what kind of movie he’s making, and tears into it with gusto. The center-of-the-earth scenes, in particular, lean into the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure yarns that inspired the original Kong films, with a healthy streak of prog-rock-album-cover surrealism thrown in for good measure. This underground realm, it must be noted, is accessed via a thousand-mile tunnel through the crust of Antarctica, yet when the time comes for the final rumble, it appears to be located just under the streets of Hong Kong. Again: if you’re questioning this 90 minutes in, it probably wasn’t ever going to work for you.
Which, of course, brings us to the movie’s raison d’etre: the title bout. Just as the original King Kong vs. Godzilla saw the two stars go at each other with pro-wrestling moves, Godzilla vs. Kong is nothing if not a showcase for some righteously ridiculous monster throw-downs. Godzilla tears a building in half. Kong attacks Godzilla with an enormous, radioactive battleaxe. At one point, locked in a grapple, the two monsters simply take turns screaming in each other’s faces, and it’s awesome. There are times, to be fair, in which the fights take on some of the disorienting weightlessness of the Michael Bay Transformers films (particularly in an early face-off in the middle of the ocean), but Wingard brings to the table a visual flair and, for the most part, a sense of actual, visceral impact. Every kid who grew up loving monsters has likely played out a version of Godzilla vs. Kong in their head, and I’m happy to say that this iteration lives up to those fantasies.
If there is a central flaw to the monster fight scenes, it’s that there is an inherent charisma imbalance in the creatures’ designs. Kong is an easy monster to humanize; gorillas are naturally emotive beasts, and sympathy is built into the character (even if, in this telling, he never met Ann Darrow or made the trip to New York). But modern Hollywood, with its misguided commitment to “realism,” simply doesn’t have the guts to make Godzilla as goofy and expressive as the Toho films of old. The rubber suit in, say, Godzilla vs. Megalon might not fool anyone into thinking they’re looking at a flesh-and-blood dinosaur, but its bug-eyed, rumpled expression turned Godzilla into an actual character. The modern Godzilla, by contrast, is painstakingly created with photorealistic CGI, but is, ultimately, a giant crocodile. This takes a little bit of the fun out of the final smackdown; even if you’re a true-blue Godzilla fan, it’s hard to really root for him.
Still, none of this changes the fact that this is a lovably stupid movie that I am very much here for. This is a film in which a CNN report pops up with the chyron “GODZILLA NO LONGER TITAN SAVIOR”; in which a leading scientist gravely informs a corporate lackey, “Kong bows to no one”; in which a character, upon seeing Mechagodzilla for the very first time, whispers, “That’s Mechagodzilla!” The phrase “good movie” is even more subjective than usual for a movie like this, so instead I’ll just say this: if you’ve been beaten down by the past year and just want to see King Kong and Godzilla punch each other in the face, then boy, do I have a movie for you.
* Please note that, for the purposes of this review, any generalizations about Godzilla movies will likely exclude Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 film Godzilla (Americanized in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters). This film– a sober, black-and-white disaster film in which Godzilla is a clear metaphor for the horrors of the hydrogen bombs dropped on Japan a decade earlier– is easily the “best” Godzilla film, but it’s not really what we talk about when we talk about “Godzilla films.”
Godzilla vs. Kong
dir. Adam Wingard
Opens in theaters and on HBO Max Wednesday, 3/31
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