The Seven Hundredth Time Around
Another small milestone in the history of this column arrives, and it would be nice to mark it with something special – but with the cinemas all still closed around here and no prospect of an imminent reopening, the special pleasures of the theatrical experience are obviously denied to us. This is more of an issue with some films than others – much as I love the joys of a huge darkened space, an enormous screen and proper sound, sometimes you don't lose all that much by hanging on for a TV release.
But sometimes you do, because sheer scale and spectacle and racket come pretty close to being the sine qua non of some movies. Yes, blockbuster season has crept up on us and it seems that this year, the studios are prepared to at least consider biting the bullet and releasing their biggest films straight to streaming services. How well are they going to fare in an environment where it's less easy to disable an audience's critical faculties through sheer sensory overload? Are all the big dumb movies going to get found out?
Few movies sound quite as dumb as Godzilla Vs Kong (directed by Adam Wingard, whose use of the possessive credit suggests he sees this as some kind of auteur project, a perspective most likely unique to him). That said, the original 1962 film King Kong Vs Godzilla isn't so much dumb as a deliberate satirical comedy, with the audience in on the joke. The new film is much more earnest and perhaps more prone to come across as silly as a result.
For anyone who doesn't follow the meta-plot of Hollywood monster movie franchises as closely as I do (I suppose it's just possible such people do exist), this is a follow-up to both 2017's Kong: Skull Island and 2019's Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the movie gets underway, we learn that giant ape Kong (never actually referred to as King Kong here, in case you were wondering) is essentially being kept in protective custody by monster-wrangling agency Monarch, to stop Godzilla from tracking him down and beating him up (there is bad blood between their families, or something). Deeply concerned for the big guy, and de facto leader of Team K as the movie progresses, is primatologist Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who has a cute deaf-mute adopted daughter who shares a special bond with the ape.
The plot proper kicks off when colossal nuclear dinosaur Godzilla surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico and launches a seemingly unprovoked attack on an industrial facility in Pensacola owned by one of the world's leading tech companies. The world is shocked by this sudden aggression, but firmly on Team G is Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), who is sure there has to be a reason for the attack and sets out to discover what it is.
Meanwhile, maverick geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is recruited by the owner of the tech company (Demian Bichir, giving an enormous, swaggering, bwa-ha-ha-I-am-so-magnificently-evil performance) to help find a means of fending Godzilla off should he start playing up again. This involves locating a mysterious power source only found at the hollow core of the Earth. The expedition involves going down a very deep hole they have dug in Antarctica, and…
Well, let's not focus too much on the intricacies of the plot (I use the word 'intricacies' in a very loose sense, and also 'plot'). Look, here's the thing. As regular readers will know I am a big fan of Japanese monster movies (and indeed monster movies in general) and happily cut them all kinds of slack as long as they get the important stuff right. And, up to a point, Godzilla Vs Kong delivers the goods in spades: the monster rasslin' between Kong and Godzilla is as imaginative, violent, and destructive as one could wish for. (Similarities between this film and King Kong Vs Godzilla are thin on the ground, but both are obliged to address, in different ways, the fact that Godzilla's atomic breath appears to give him a distinct advantage. Bonus points are also given for there actually being a genuine winner when the two face off in the third act.) We have previously discussed the issue of the aesthetics of giant monster battles hereabouts, and the slightly tedious tendency of Hollywood movies to set them at night. There's a touch of that here, but it's offset by the film's general use of a garish, neon-saturated colour palette, even if it is a bit video-gamey.
Nevertheless, you can't just have 113 minutes of monsters fighting each other; there needs to be some kind of connective tissue of plot and structure to give it all a bit of context and significance and, dare I say it, logic. It's true that this is a film about how the ancient rivalry between an enormous ape and a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur is impacted by the plans of a lunatic billionaire who has decided, for reasons known only to himself, to build a giant cyborg replica of said nuclear dinosaur using body-parts harvested from an alien space dragon, and thus it could be argued that normal standards of credibility and logic are not fully in effect. Even so, much of the film is borderline-nonsensical, reliant on outrageous and absurd plot contrivances and devices. You can see that they're hoping that if they go really fast and keep hitting you with visual grandeur, lavish CGI and new plot developments, a sort of fridge logic will be in effect and you won't notice how little of it makes sense. But fridge logic has its limits and even as you're watching it, you can't help but notice how under-exposited most of it feels.
But as I say, it does look very pretty, with some impressive new monster designs (including a new version of yet another member of the classic Toho kaiju stable). You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though, who join the long and distinguished roll-call of performers who have signed up for a Godzilla or Kong film and found themselves all at sea. Takeshi Shimura, Raymond Burr, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jean Reno, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins: there is no shame in joining their company, as Skarsgard, Hall, and various other members of the cast do here. Bichir, on the other hand, seems to be trying to win a bet: it's a big and enjoyable performance, but camp in a way that most of the film seems to be trying to avoid.
In the end, it's colourful and action-packed and sort of fun, but it's like drinking a bucket of cola instead of enjoying a balanced meal. I'm rather surprised that the proper critics have gone so easy on Godzilla Vs Kong, admitting to its various flaws but suggesting they don't matter and may in fact be inherent in this kind of a movie. Obviously, I would disagree: even the critically-mauled King of the Monsters was more coherent and satisfying story-wise. It may just be that the presence of Kong, as opposed to a group of more obscure Japanese monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah, makes the new movie more accessible to a general audience. I didn't find it as satisfying as either of the films immediately preceding it, but it is entertaining on a superficial level; it's just a shame they couldn't have come up with a way of keeping all the monster fights but surrounding them with a plot that actually made sense.