A nuclear-breathing lizard tries to breathe on a giant ape, who's not into it.
Directed by Adam Wingard
Starring Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, and Millie Bobby Brown
Review by Jon Kissel
It’s not clever to say that the whole of Godzilla vs Kong is in the title, but the whole of Godzilla vs Kong is in the title. The film delivers when one generically angry radioactive lizard comes into violent contact with a surprisingly expressive giant ape. These sequences are fun, both at an instinctual childhood fantasy way and in a campy how-many-thousands-of-people-were-just-killed way. The series’ greatest charms for my animal brain have been the Mortal-Kombat-style finishing moves, and they continue here. Giving Kong a weapon is a natural progression, however dumb it is. I love that for the most part, Kong treats the human characters with the exact level of dismissiveness that any coherent viewer does. He chucks a manned fighter jet at Godzilla, and he eliminates a plot thread in the CEO’s daughter with a shrug. Kong as a character isn’t as considered as Peter Jackson’s version from 15 years earlier, but there’s enough personality there to make him the most likable character in the film.
In moments like those, Godzilla vs Kong knows exactly why everyone’s watching this movie, but it cannot help itself with overexplanation and mythology. This franchise manages to rope in some of the most celebrated actors of the last two decades, often from TV for some reason, and hopes that they have enough talent to make the painful exposition that they’re saddled with sound natural. They almost always fail, with Bryan Cranston from Godzilla being the sole exception. In trying to build up the arcs of all these characters, usually involving the cheap shorthand of a death in the family, less time is spent not only on monster fights but on the kind of problem solving that is suggested by living in a world with giant monsters. The movie starts with Kong in containment, and continues with him sedated and chained up on the deck of a ship. How did either of those things happen? Alexander Skarsgard’s character needs to use his magic flying ship from Mass Effect to jump start Kong’s heart. Cut to him landing it on Kong’s chest and running out of it, then to a wider shot of it sitting on Kong’s chest and charging up, and cut again to Skarsgard running through the street. How did he get off the giant unconscious ape? I would be considerably more interested in how humans have adapted to Godzilla et al than in the underground temple where Kong left his axe. Competence is one of the few avenues that would make me care about anyone human in this franchise, and instead, Mechagodzilla is ultimately thwarted by some loose liquid poured around its control panel.
The final nails in the film surrounding Godzilla vs Kong’s monster fights are the presence of two personal peeves. One is Brian Tyree Henry’s conspiracy theorist character, a mole who’s working to expose an underhanded company and puts out a publicly available podcast about his efforts. The film also validates his paranoia by setting up anyone that doesn’t take him at his word as a foolish skeptic, as if such a thing was even possible in a world that, again, has giant monsters. Second is the presence of the military, who are just around for the tax breaks and the kickbacks. Kong is accompanied by aircraft carriers on his sea voyage, despite the fact that a corporation is funding this project. The US military is good with being depicted as a for-hire escort service for eccentric business interests, apparently. I also can’t help but feel my age when an aircraft carrier is destroyed. The veil of fantasy buy-in just gets thinner with age, as a sinking aircraft carrier can only mean thousands of deaths that the film doesn’t pause to consider for a second. At least Independence Day paid lip service to its body count.
Godzilla vs Kong isn’t as joyless and corny as King of the Monsters but this is not a high-water mark for what’s been a disappointing franchise. Skull Island remains the best entry because it knows exactly what it is, though it still has too many overqualified actors playing too many characters. At least the Monsterverse got a lot of talented actors paid. How this franchise, a sure thing based on its root appeal, managed to only go one for four is baffling, though if it keeps the theater industry afloat, bring on the useless subplots and failed jokes. C