A reminder of what we’ve been missing.
If you were a teenager in late 1997/early-mid 1998, you remember being incredibly hyped for Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla thanks to the brilliant marketing campaign (YouTube clips of the various teasers still ring as tantalizing) and the sheer excitement of a new Godzilla movie in the age of Jurassic Park. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. The movie was loud, dull and quickly became the go-to punchline for the rest of 1998. Cut to 2005 and director Peter Jackson’s incredibly stylized (even by blockbuster standards) interpretation of King Kong, which managed to work even with Jackson being almost too in love with his subject for the movie’s own good. Now we’re in a new age where the two titans are bona fide movie stars in charge of their own cinematic universes with fans eagerly speculating the appearance of new foes and obstacles for both of the legendary creatures. The expectations couldn’t be higher, quite frankly. Fortunately, Godzilla vs. Kong shouldn’t have any trouble meeting them
Two years after Godzilla: King of the Monsters and four years after Kong: Skull Island, the two titular stars of those blockbuster creature features return for a showdown. Following a surprise attack by Godzilla on the Apex corporation, Dr. Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), hires Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgaard), a geologist to convince anthropological linguist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) to bring Kong from Skull Island and use him to find Hollow Earth, his original home where it is believed that a powerful source will hold the key to the future of the titans.
I suppose I should take a few minutes (if even that many) to talk about the movie’s script and the characters within it, what little there is of either. Nothing about the screenplay holds any surprises where the flesh and blood humans are concerned, leaving the actors to try and carve out their own character personalities when they can. A couple of them are given more jokes than personality but at least there’s no one too TOO boring or useless on hand even if they barely feel like anything more than tropes. For example, you know Bichir is a baddie because he’s sipping a stiff drink as a top secret experiment is taking place. Meanwhile, the science in the film comes off as credible enough in blockbuster terms without ever feeling particularly contrived or convoluted. At least, this is the way things function until the ending, which sees two characters trying to put a stop to the catastrophic showdown in a way that’s so laughable it’s almost on par with restarting a laptop. At a certain point, director Adam Wingard realizes Godzilla vs. Kong has clocked in enough time in these areas and stops caring about whether we get what’s happening before our eyes. We really only know as much as Kong himself does, which is fine. We’re all along for the ride just like he is.
And make no mistake, Godzilla vs. Kong is indeed a ride. The action set pieces, and the effects used to bring them to make them real, give new life to what a movie of this scale can be in terms of visual entertainment. From the vast ocean setting, to the hyperreal Hong Kong and the majesty of Hollow Earth, the two titular big guys have a great assortment of wondrous playgrounds to bounce around in. Yet despite top billing, Godzilla is largely a supporting player that the movie surprisingly struggles to make relevant until the movie’s second half. Still, the anticipation that accompanies each meeting between him and Kong is paid off with a grandness as their well-choreographed fights take on a life and an energy that’s almost majestic. The film’s sequences are well-paced and don’t overstay any welcome, while the creature design gives new life to both Kong and Godzilla. A shot of the former collapsing from exhaustion onto a large sea vessel and another of the latter in which his face is in a tight closeup that’s positively breathtaking, are some of the many instances where its clear that from an action spectacle level, Godzilla vs. Kong is an above average feat.
What is there to say about the performances here? Yes, the film has humans in speaking roles. Yes, they do a good job in the sense that they hit their marks, find their light and recite their lines in a credible enough manner to justify their presence. The previously mentioned names are as decent as they’re allowed to be while Bryan Tyree Henry as a conspiracy theorist does manage some genuine laughs in the process. Still, Eiza Gonzalez is little more than a stock villain/killjoy, while King of the Monsters refugees Millie Bobbie Brown and Kyle Chandler merely clock in time thanks to presumed contractual obligations.
Shortly before starting this review, I came across a movie news headline which stated that the theatrical rollout for Godzilla vs. Kong was the largest since theaters fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. With more people getting vaccinated and previously shuttered theaters being allowed to open up again, industry eyes will be watching to see if the movie will be the magic salve needed to get audiences back into seats…safely. The title was a topic of contention almost as soon as Warner Bros. made their jaw dropping announcement about releasing their upcoming slate directly to HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical release. It’s a move that’s still generating industry debate. Watching Godzilla vs. Kong last night on my TV screen, it was impossible to have battling emotions of feeling like that 90s teenager who was excited at the thought of a new Godzilla movie. I found myself lapping up every effects-driven sequence the movie threw at me while being constantly reminded that this was where we are now. Time will tell if/when we can get back to the kind of movie watching experience we had before, but Godzilla vs. Kong proves it’s an experience still worth having.