Directed by: Adam Wingard || Produced by: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Brian Rogers, Mary Parent, Alex Garcia, Eric McLeod
Screenplay by: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein || Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir
Music by: Tom Holkenborg || Cinematography: Ben Seresin || Edited by: Josh Schaeffer || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 113 minutes
“Come what may, Warner Bros. got to have its cake and eat it, too. Godzilla vs. Kong was the right movie at the right time,” said Scott Mendelson of Forbes, one of several news outlets to note the intriguing implications of the apparent box office success of the latest “MonsterVerse” franchise installment, which has been developed by Legendary Pictures and distributed by Warner Bros. Despite an expected overseas take in Asia, where many public theatres have long since reopened, expectations appeared low for Godzilla vs. Kong (henceforth, GvK) in the US and the West more broadly, given both the pandemic and Warner Bros’ previous announcement to debut its entire 2021 film library in public theatres and on its fledgling streaming service, HBO Max, simultaneously. Adam Wingard’s (You’re Next , The Guest ) first foray into Hollywood tentpole filmmaking bested the domestic opening weekend of its franchise predecessor, King of the Monsters (2019, henceforth, KotM; ~$48.5 million to $47.8 million), despite COVID-19 restrictions and the allure of an HBO Max “streaming exclusive.” It now seems obvious Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), the lone major Hollywood release of last year after the pandemic reached American shores, was far too early in its quest to “save” theatrical releases…
I have made my opinions on public moviegoing clear for a while (I’m not a fan and believe the theatrical experience is highly overrated by cinephiles), and have little interest in the return of franchise movies (e.g. superhero films, Fast and Furious [2001-] movies, etc.) to their cineplex monopoly. Legendary’s “MonsterVerse”, however, piques my interest somewhat given (1) I had a childhood fascination with monster-movies, Godzilla (1954-) properties in particular, and (2) the series remains one of the few successful imitators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU; 2008-2019) extended franchise formula. The box office disappointment of KotM notwithstanding, I am bemused by the collective, relative staying power of Godzilla (2014), Skull Island (2017), and now GvK at both the box office and with professional critics. Few diehard kaiju fans would question these films’ dedication to their source material; their continued marketability in China especially indicate predictable marketability overseas, and most critics seem willing to hand-wave their weaknesses as forgivable blockbuster guilty pleasure, all attributes commonly associated with the MCU and Fast and Furious, but not with the MCU’s most notable copycat, Warner Bros’ DC Extended Universe (i.e. Man of Steel , Justice League [2017, 2021], et al.).
Perhaps the MonsterVerse’s initial conservatism has played a part in this — Legendary planned four films over seven years instead of, say, twice that — but to me, the best part of this miniature “extended” franchise’s charm is how different its installments feel next to one another. With very, very few exceptions, both the MCU and the Fast and Furious series feel designed, coordinated, and executed with laboratory precision; most every installment feels the same, whereas Godzilla, Skull Island, KotM, and GvK feel distinct despite their faults. You can tell the directorial identity of Gareth Edwards, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Michael Dougherty, and now Wingard, respectively, between each film, while it’s difficult to say the same thing for most filmmakers in other Hollywood behemoths; even outside my childhood affection for big monsters, I enjoy the franchise’s variety.
It helps matters this latest film, GvK, is a step up from Dougherty’s inconsistent KotM, shedding the latter’s incessant weather FX, which obscured much of its commendable monster action, as well as most of its contrived family drama and extraneous, unnecessary comic relief from the human cast. GvK’s kaiju-battles, its main attractions, live up to the hype throughout all three acts, with both scene geography and blocking of the monsters crystal clear in both day and nighttime settings. As for the overall script, GvK minimizes its accessory human characters beyond any of its franchise brethren, something with which Godzilla (2014) and KotM struggled in particular, and is better for it. The smartest thing screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein do, however, is make Kong the protagonist and Godzilla a supporting character, a de facto antagonist, for much of the plot.
That being said, GvK falls short compared to other MonsterVerse features in several areas as well. Red Letter Media contrasted the relatively grounded diegeses of Godzilla (2014), Skull Island, and KotM with GvK’s over-the-top fantasy schlock, including a literal journey to the center of the earth with gravity warp-resistant spaceships and a cartoonish stock villain, Demián Bichir’s billionaire tech mogul. While I appreciate Wingard’s imaginative neon visuals, not to mention the movie’s countless organic references to Toho Pictures’ later, weirder Godzilla sequels (e.g. King Kong vs. Godzilla , Invasion of Astro Monster , Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla , etc.), the narrative’s transition from mystical science-fiction to almost comic book-fantasy cheapens the monsters’ scale and physical weight a la Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). Tom Holkenberg’s soundtrack, which features subtle techno flourishes reminiscent of Wingard’s The Guest, also can’t hold a candle to Bear McCreary’s throwback music for KotM, which featured a brilliant cover of Akira Ifukube’s classic Toho Godzilla theme, nor Skull Island’s effective use of 1970s rock ‘n roll. Most frustrating of all, however, is GvK’s pointless B-storyline with returning KotM castmember, Millie Bobby Brown, and newcomers Julian Dennison and Brian Tyree Henry as comical investigative conspiracy theorists.
Though Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island remains my favorite of this recent wave of Hollywood monster-movies for a variety of reasons, Godzilla vs Kong is a respectable compatriot that likewise embraces its creature-driven special FX without compromising its director’s identity. The MonsterVerse remains the most “auteur-driven” blockbuster franchise in modern Hollywood, for lack of a better description, and I feel that’s something to celebrate more so as a cinephile than as a fan of monster-movies. Despite an inconsistent subplot, Godzilla vs Kong overcomes its fantasy nonsense and questionable physics to showcase creative set-pieces, a three-dimensional protagonist, great pacing, and Adam Wingard’s love of neon lights. If its parent franchise earns another sequel the old-fashioned way, I say good for them.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Adam Wingard continues the MonsterVerse’s trend of quality blockbuster entertainment by keeping focus on his movie’s titular showstoppers with identifiable neon visuals, creative set-pieces, and a savvy minimalist screenplay from writers Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein.
— However… a lengthy subplot featuring Bobby Brown, Dennison, and Henry is mere filler in this otherwise well paced narrative. Musically and in terms of diegetic believability, Godzilla vs Kong is a step down from its predecessors.
? How do the atmosphere and sunlight operate in the “Hollow Earth?”