Monday 5 April 2021

Beast Wars: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla and King Kong have been thrilling moviegoers for decades. Flattening foes from the Empire State Building to Tokyo. But will the pandemic stop these big screen icons?

Back from hunting shadows aboard Babylon 5, Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, is ringside for a blockbuster monster smackdown on HBO Max.

Guest post by Nick Smith

In Godzilla vs. Kong, we find the jumbo-size King of Skull Island locked in a holographically enhanced dome. Man has messed up the weather on the rest of the island, turning it as grey and stormy as Glasgow on a good day. Beyond the Thunderdome, Godzilla wreaks havoc on Pensacola, Florida. Only one beast can stop him from causing more trouble in a globe-spanning adventure that takes us to Antarctica and Hong Kong, where the titans clash and destroy a crazy amount of real estate.

Godzilla vs. Kong is the apex of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, a cinematic ’reboot’ franchise that has been roaring across our screens for seven years. Over that time, plots have become simpler as the filmmakers aim for as wide-ranging an audience as possible. The latest effort stays true to Godzilla and King Kong’s monster movie origins, culminating in a satisfying knockdown conflict involving the two bad boy behemoths.

2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island were enjoyable, specifically because of their impressive effects and their focus on class actors Brian Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson respectively. With its kaiju-foreshadowing ending, Skull Island built anticipation for 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Sadly, the latter wasted the talents of Stranger Things' Millie Bobby Brown, who starred as Madison Russell. Madison’s mom (Vera Farmiga), a misguided scientist, seemed motivated by plot rather than any credible maternal instincts and the movie was epically forgettable.

Two years later, Godzilla is fighting King Kong in a movie no one really asked for. After all, they both have their fans who don’t want their favourite monster to get mashed. Will they find out their mother’s name is Martha and bond against a common foe? Or is the film’s title just an excuse to squeeze both their names on the poster? They’re too busy crushing tower blocks to care.

If the competition is for Best Animation, Godzilla’s the clear winner. One could argue that it’s easier to digitize reptilian scales than ape fur, but early on in the film Kong’s sloppy animation includes the objects around him (trees, chains) giving a video game feel that’s more Donkey than King.

I was pleased to see Pensacola featured – it’s an hour west of where I live – although this beach ball-loving little town has transformed into an industrialized megacity. Godzilla vs. Kong is apparently set in the near future, with Elon Musk-esque technology and Kong’s holodeck home. Hong Kong is depicted as a party city of multi-coloured neon, ripe for razing by the titans. Part of the fun of Skull Island’s period setting (1973) was to see that era’s weaponry struggling against King Kong. The new movie seems to suggest an alternate timeline where kaiju tech has helped the human race to progress.

Unfortunately, that’s the only progress the humans make. There’s no overt character development for them; any emotional growth is left to the titans. The original monster movies, from 1933’s King Kong on, had us caring about the humans as well as the strange creatures; in that classic, Kong was given relatable traits, desires, and a fatal flaw. Almost a century later, five men get writing credits on Godzilla vs. Kong, although apparently, they watched a kid bashing toys against each other and transcribed the result. OK done, here’s your screenplay to sell toys!

There’s definitely a sense that the filmmakers are worried about the short attention span of their target audience. Cue overly dramatic music when the bad guy makes his big speech – y’know, in case viewers get bored. The composer is telling us, “this is exciting stuff, y’all!”

The characters may not be fully developed but they are, on the whole, charming and worth rooting for. Little girl Jia (Kaylee Hottle) is reminiscent of Meiying in The Meg (2018), with trailer-worthy scenes that show Kong’s scale-up against her, rain falling, tears falling, motion slowing… it’s all very dramatic. Why not? After all, The Meg earned over half a billion dollars at the box office and Kong’s banana rations ain’t cheap these days.

For all Hollywood’s attempts at diversity (Hottle is deaf and she plays a deaf character) in some ways, it hasn’t progressed since the ‘30s heyday of Stepin Fetchit. Godzilla vs. Kong includes a scene with a comic relief African American looking scared and running. Brian Tyree Henry rises above such material, depicting Bernie Hayes as an intelligent, likeable and slightly bonkers character who is one of the more memorable in the film.

Godzilla vs. Kong repeats the formula of anchoring its plot with a good, solid actor (Alexander Skarsgard) and Millie Bobby Brown is given more to do. The same cannot be said for Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) and Madison’s dad Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) who do what they can with underdeveloped roles.

The animation seems to improve over the course of the film, offering us a breathtaking Hollow Earth landscape and gravity-defying vehicles. There’s an optimism present in this timeline, a world where cybernetics coexists with prehistoric monsters and there’s hope for our future (except for that whole destruction of ecosystems part, which has apparently displaced the indigenous population of Skull island).

More importantly, there’s hope for the MonsterVerse’s future – it has opened with a reported $50 million box office take – and for movie-going, despite its availability on HBO Max. Hence hyperbolic headlines like, “Godzilla vs. Kong Defeats Pandemic” (The Hollywood Reporter) and “Godzilla vs. Kong Propels Domestic Box Office Out of Pandemic Depression” (Deadline).

Godzilla vs. Kong deserves its mantle as a savage saviour. It’s fun, better than Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and continues the legacy of both beasts in a respectful manner. It’s a treat for those who find the Transformers franchise too Dostoyevskyan, and for monster movie fans of all ages.

Watch Godzilla vs. Kong (affiliate link).

Have you seen Godzilla vs. Kong? Let me know in the comments below.

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