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Non-Review Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla vs. Kong is in some ways an anticlimax, and not just because it’s arriving on HBO Max rather than as a cinematic blockbuster.

Clocking in at under two hours, Godzilla vs. Kong is technically the shortest entry in the Warner Brothers “Monsterverse” series. It comes in a few minutes shy of Kong: Skull Island and well short of both Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This is strange, given that Godzilla vs. Kong is nominally supposed to be the triumphant climax of this shared universe, the event towards which everything has been building. It’s strange that this clash of titans should up feeling so small.

That sinking feeling.

To be fair, there is a strong sense of an attempted course correction about Godzilla vs. Kong, especially in response to the overcrowded cacophony of King of the Monsters. In many ways, Godzilla vs. Kong is a smaller and more contained movie than King of the Monsters, notably hinging on three core monsters rather than an entire menagerie. It’s also to the credit of director Adam Wingard that Godzilla vs. Kong is a tighter, more contained and more focused film with a greater sense of internal coherence.

Unfortunately, though, there’s very littler surprise or wonder to be found in this titanic throwdown.

To give Wingard credit, he has a literally monstrous task ahead of him in trying to boil down this disjointed series of films into a satisfying conclusion. Each of the prior three installments in the series  had come from three radically different directors with three radically different perspectives. Boiling all of those approaches down into a coherent narrative that is also shorter than any of them individually is a big ask.

The best parts of those earlier films were the parts distinct to each director and not easily replicable across a wider franchise: Gareth Edwards’ almost religious awe in the face of unimaginable horror in Godzilla and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ playful pop sensibility in Skull Island. Both of those elements had been entirely absent from Michael Dougherty’s King of the Monsters, the movie from which Wingard is obligated to carry over the largest portion of the cast and mythology.

Mounting dread.

Wingard cleverly synthesises approaches where he can. When King Kong appears, the soundtrack includes a number of deliberately anachronistic musical cues like Bobby Vinton or Elvis Presley, in a nod to Vogt-Roberts’ eclectic music selection. Of course, Vogt-Roberts used those cues to anchor the film in its historical time period, and so applying them to a film set in the modern day doesn’t work in the same fashion, but it’s a nice and thoughtful touch.

More to the point, Wingard shoots a lot of the sequences involving Kong in such a way as to suggest Skull Island. The sun glows orange in the sky, evoking the Vietnam sensibility that Vogt-Roberts brought to the material. Helicopters whirl slowly and impressively into shot. Characters arrive on ships in the middle of the ocean wearing sunglasses and leaning out of the side of the chopper. Wingard ports over as much of the texture of Skull Island as he can for the Kong-centric sequences in Godzilla vs. Kong, and it’s not a bad approach.

King of (Hong) Kong.

Similarly, Wingard is also cognisant of the fact that he is making a sequel to King of the Monsters. As such, a lot of the film includes the strong and rich colours associated with Dougherty’s vision, but Wingard gently shifts from the white, blue and sepia palette of King of the Monsters to a more vibrant and neon colour scheme based around purple, blue and red. “You know,” remarks one character touring a secret facility, “if this wasn’t contributing to world destruction, this would be a great DJ booth.”

Godzilla vs. Kong largely works when it focuses on its title characters and their title bout. There’s something endearingly goofy and fun in watching computer-generated monsters throwdown like their competing in some sort of absurd version of Smackdown. There’s some surprisingly clever and impressive choreography in the various action sequences, which largely deliver what the film knows that fans want.

No chain, no gain.

More than that, the film’s ruthlessly efficient runtime means that Godzilla vs. Kong wastes precious time in getting to the main attraction. Godzilla is levelling cities within the opening ten minutes. Kong and Godzilla are grappling with one another within forty minutes. Godzilla vs. Kong is extremely wary of any accusation that it is not delivering audiences exactly what they expect and it promised.

Unfortunately, that’s a double-edged sword. Godzilla vs. Kong suffers when it shifts attention away from the title monsters. Like both Skull Island and King of the Monsters, Godzilla vs. Kong has a stacked human cast that includes veterans Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown, alongside new arrivals like Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Brian Tyree Henry, Eiza González, Julian Dennison and Demián Bichir. However, unlike Skull Island, it has no idea what to do with any of them.

Going to town on… downtown.

Admittedly, the human characters in a monster movie like this serve as a vehicle to get to the monster mayhem. However, the reason that Skull Island ranks as the best of this series of films is that it refused to believe that the human characters had to be boring and lifeless. None of the characters in Godzilla vs. Kong have any definition or detail, any real agency or vitality. Instead, they get chunks of back story before serving as clumsy exposition machines and awkward emotional leverage.

There’s no real sense that Godzilla vs. Kong exists in a world recognisable or familiar. News reports casually allude to “sudden Godzilla attacks” by a monster “once thought to be a hero to humanity”, while characters go on and on expositing about “alpha titans.” Characters talk about Godzilla as if the monster is a close personal friend who tweeted something vaguely inappropriate. “Right now, Godzilla is out there and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why,” complains Mark Russell at one point.

No time for no monkey business.

When Madison Russell sets out to figure out what has upset Godzilla, her friend Josh is confused. “Why do we have to help him?” Josh asks, broaching the point that running towards a giant rampaging act of god might not be the most prudent strategy. Instead of explaining that they might prevent millions of deaths, Madison frames her reply in terms of Godzilla’s wants and needs, “Because if we don’t nobody else will.”

Characters frequently employ jargon and names from the monster’s mythology, with nobody really stopping to consider how surreal all of this must seem. “Skull crawlers?” Madison asks at one point while investigating a sinister organisation. “What’s Apex doing with skull crawlers?” It doesn’t matter that Skull Island pointed out that “skull crawlers” is a very weird name to apply to these creatures, that’s just what they’re called.

A touching moment.C

There’s no room for any humanity in the film. The entire indigenous population from Skull Island is erased with a throwaway piece of exposition, as Ilene Andrews explains that “when the storm took over the island, it wiped out the native people.” The film doesn’t really have any big themes or ideas about what these monsters say about the people underneath them, with the dialogue making occasional clumsy references to “family” and Kong’s attachment to a little girl, but no real substance to any of this.

For a movie that is nominally about mythic creatures wandering the earth, there’s a strange lack of wonder or awe to Godzilla vs. Kong. To be fair, this is a problem with the series as a whole. Gareth Edwards tried to inject an almost religious awe into Godzilla, but even that was undermined by how easily various characters took to using jargon like “Godzilla” or “MUTOs” to describe entities that should exist beyond humanity’s frame of reference – not “the incident”, not “the event”, not “the creature.”

Going swimmingly.

By the time that the series hit King of the Monsters, human characters were accepting the reality that the earth was really hollow, that Atlantis existed and that King Ghidorah was an alien without breaking a sweat. The characters confronted a burning and drowning Washington D.C. as if dealing with a malfunctioning office coffee machine. There was no sense that any of this meant anything to the characters, no sense of any emotional reality when confronted with events on this scale.

It’s interesting to see characters within a spectacle-driven movie like Godzilla vs. Kong reacting with the same impassive numbness that audiences at home feel when confronted with all this computer-generated scale. It’s just another day of the week for these characters, just as it is for the audience at home. Godzilla vs. Kong is just something to put on between Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Mortal Kombat.

Kong of the Hill.

There are a few small morsels of wonder to be found in Godzilla vs. Kong, but tellingly they are reserved for Kong himself. The best sequence in the film finds Kong visiting a mysterious realm where the laws of physics are suspended, and the giant monkey struggles to understand what this means as a synth score builds in the background. It’s a surprisingly sweet little sequence, and the rare point at which the movie feels truly alive. It’s odd to see more wonder in a computer-generated face than a human one.

To be fair, Godzilla vs. Kong is a much better film than King of the Monsters. It’s more coherent, more cleanly structured, and more clear in what the audience wants from it. The title fight in Godzilla vs. Kong delivers on most of what it promises, even if none of the champions exactly surpass expectations. It’s just a shame that there’s nothing more interesting on the undercard.

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