The beasts are angry in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”
Of course, they were also angry in recent installments of Warner’s so-called “MonsterVerse” of kaiju confrontations and demolished skylines, but here the titular cinematic titans appear to have been given a motivational pep talk by director Adam Wingard and his team of effects wizards before heading into the ring to face off—the apparent ultimate victors of a monster bracket literalized in a raucous opening credits sequence, a March Madness finale to end all March Madness finales.
In one corner we have the legendary lizard, who, instead of swimming balletically through Earth’s waters, is here seen ferociously slicing through the waves before unleashing atomic-fiery hell. In the other corner, we have the iconic ape, his leaps more confident and his swings more agile than when he was met by the likes of Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston in 2017 (or in 1973, in MonsterVerse years). They’re on a collision course to resume an “ancient rivalry,” words uttered by Rebecca Hall with utmost sincerity and, importantly, without an ounce of self-seriousness. It sets the bar for what’s to come: a blockbuster of monstrous proportions that’s almost certainly zanier than what you’re expecting, with the smarts to dispense of (mostly) anything that would fatally bog it down in semantics. “Godzilla vs. Kong” succeeds because it finds compromise between its foes’ enduring pop culture status and the technical calculations (and deep pockets) of modern Hollywood to turn that status into bracing spectacle. They huff and they puff and they knock plenty a skyscraper down, and, reader, it makes for some of the most majestic big-budget fun the movies have provided us in the better part of a majestically horrendous year.
It’s also a course-correction from 2019’s cataclysmic but lead-footed “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” a wreck-a-palooza which insisted on dividing its loyalties between the Gothic horror of an awakened dragon able to regrow its limbs and the hyperspecific drama of a separated family’s quarrels. “Godzilla vs. Kong” (which shares some of its predecessor’s narrative architects) leans more towards the goofiness of “Kong: Skull Island,” and the charismatic splitting of the difference results in human characters whose personalities are largely imbued with the same self-aware, just-go-with-it energy as the monsters towering over them—the main attraction influencing the sideshow, instead of the other way around. How you react when a certain character is referred to early on as the “Kong Whisperer” will be an appropriate gauge for whether you can lose yourself in wackier turns down the road, including Pandora-esque upside-down worlds and the emergence of a certain iconic kaiju heretofore unseen in this MonsterVerse.
Sure, the foundational story is one of conveniences and conventions, and the cast, for some reason, is large enough to occupy a spectrum of material-appropriate hamminess (Brian Tyree Henry and Demian Bichir occupy the fun extreme, while a deadly serious Millie Bobby Brown is on the other end). But Wingard – who next embarks on “ThunderCats” as he continues climbing up the Hollywood franchise ladder – is committed to the deliriously psychedelic, to the hypnotically playful. He makes giddy good on the promise of Gareth Edwards’s 2014 “Godzilla” reboot in that it embraces kaiju not just as mere creature, but as cinematic ideology. That’s to say, most elements of “Godzilla vs. Kong” – down to its more boundlessly comic performances and exposition-via-in-movie-podcast – have been fed spoonfuls of sugar behind the scenes. Junkie XL’s score is menacing and righteously unruly. Fantastical environments pop with an otherworldliness that untethers them from laws of physics. Luc Besson appears to have been an influence in the more science-fiction-y flourishes. And while it isn’t until around the 40-minute mark that our champions first meet, that first-act setup moves quickly; it knows we want to get to the good stuff, but it’s a nice surprise that there’s some fun to be had on the way there, not the least of which is the assurance that we don't have to think too hard about any of it.
Some critics have described the movie as more of a direct sequel to “Kong: Skull Island,” and while the film’s bookending images suggest as much, it does also function as the capper to a contemporary Godzilla trilogy reflecting over-inflated human ego against the world-ending powers of Gojira and Co. Nature can’t be tamed, these tales of destruction have been telling us for 67 years, and, at its most political, “Godzilla vs. Kong” reminds us that all the resources in the organic world can only prolong the illusion that we control it.
But then again: We’re using more brain power than Wingard intends for us to. None of this – not allegory, not themes, not human motivations – overshadows the proceedings when it comes time for the titular matchup. Here, there is real ferocity in the simplicity of it all: Kong is angry, having been ferried away from his island domain. Godzilla is angry, hurting people and – as Kyle Chandler so eloquently remarks – folks, we just don’t know why. Clarity will come in time, but so will the clashes, and these joyously choreographed sequences are for the corporate-franchise-cinema ages. Military jets are thrown as if they were snowballs. The rumble of 1,000-ton footsteps shake the screen, our foes planting their stance before throwing themselves at each other with vicious abandon. Skyscraper-sized axes are wielded and Hong Kong becomes the climactic battleground for the Coachella of beast battles—a brawl so inventive in how it swings the momentum from monster to monster that this critic shamelessly hooped and hollered on more than one occasion. In the precursor oceanic bout, there’s a thrilling moment in which DP Ben Seresin’s camera flips a dizzying somersault over the enemies; it may vindicate those who opt to watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” at home and decide to rewind back 15 seconds. Barely 10 minutes later, we’re graced with the sight of a dozen Ospreys gently carrying Kong in the sky – a shot which probably costs the equivalent of every 2021 Best Picture nominee combined – and even this carries a sense of mythic spectacle. “Godzilla vs. Kong” works because this ludicrously serene moment doesn’t seem out of place with the ruckus that has just ended, in which the King of Skull Island head-butts the King of the Monsters underwater, probably setting off a tsunami several hundred miles away.
All this to say: The movie’s big, and knows the origins of its big-ness, and fully honors it in big ways. Thanos vs. the Avengers may have 23 movies’ worth of build-up on its side (and, I suppose, half a universe’s worth of life forms at stake), but “Godzilla vs. Kong,” even with all its plot loopholes and occasional moments of mistuned humor, lets its sheer bombast speak for itself. Dare I say the beasts may have even garnered my sympathies when the action is momentarily still enough for Wingard to zoom in for a close-up.
The timing of this movie’s release – it opened Wednesday in theaters, and is subsequently available to stream for HBO Max subscribers until April 30 – is rather perfect, coming both at the tail-end of a mostly lost year for blockbusters and in the early stages of a time when we can afford to be optimistic about returning to cinemas en masse once again, where movies of this size are built to be seen. The government should consider funding Warner’s marketing efforts; the notion of witnessing these titans throw down in IMAX makes for a strong added incentive to get vaccinated. How’s that for irony: Rewarding one’s act of pandemic-era public service by beaming as we watch humanity teeter on the precipice of gloriously realized doom via the biggest screens in town. Maybe I missed these movies more than I thought I did.
"Godzilla vs. Kong" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language.
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry
Directed by Adam Wingard
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