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It seemed inevitable that during this pandemic a movie would finally come out where the difference between enjoying it and not enjoying it would solely lie in how we watched the film. In Godzilla vs. Kong, these kaiju monsters are big and imposing, yet the emotional deficiencies are perhaps the most noticeable. However, for all its issues, at least the theater-going experience would have made sitting through the destruction-fest feel slightly more rewarding.
While theaters are beginning to open up around the country, many of us just aren’t willing to go quite yet – plus this movie is included with a subscription to HBO Max, so why shell out the extra money? Well, because if we’re going to watch a mediocre movie, at least we want to enjoy some of it.
In the fourth installment in Legendary Picture’s MonsterVerse, Godzilla vs. Kong puts two of cinema’s most legendary titans together and has them square off. The title characters, usually thought of as protectors of humanity from other evil creatures, are leveling city after city now fighting one another to determine who’s the rightful king.
The action is well-choreographed, featuring some of Godzilla’s most engaging and colorful battles of this current series. The staging of two giant CGI monsters beating each other up feels like an invitation for throwaway mediocrity, but these become the highlights of the film and the best-staged kaiju of the reboot franchise thus far.
While the main event is thrilling, the story supporting it is empty, confusing, and rushed. Kong’s home, Skull Island, is now covered by a holographic surveillance dome, which is monitored by the US government organization Monarch. Meanwhile, in Florida, Godzilla attacks a cybernetics facility, Apex, where conspiracy theorist podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) is attempting to uncover some sinister activity. He’s tracked down by Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), daughter of Monarch bigwig Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), who wants to help him prove that Godzilla’s attacks weren’t unprovoked.
Apex CEO Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) recruits Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), an author who believes in the Hollow Earth theory, which posits that all of Earth’s Titans actually come from a mythical land at the center of the planet. Simmons wants him to use his connections with Kong’s head researcher Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) to take the giant ape halfway around the world to the Hollow Earth portal in Antarctica. There he can lead a crew in their subterranean expedition.
Why? Because they believe that, even though Kong’s never been there, his instincts will lead them to the Land of the Titans in order to find “something” to stop Godzilla. Try summing that up in a logline.
Director Adam Wingard, along with editor Josh Schaeffer, can’t quite find a way to slow this one down. Despite quite the involved premise, this epic of a movie clocks in at a mere 113 minutes. The setup itself, which should take at least twice as long as it does, is never given the chance to truly breathe or be understood, so that later on the intended payoffs all fall pretty flat.
With obvious comparisons to Jules Verne, this film finally explores the Hollow Earth realm it’s been promising for several installments now, really leaning into the sci-fi elements of the canon. However, the mythology that’s introduced to us first hand is never built upon in any compelling way. We get to the Hollow Earth and it’s magnificent to look at, sure, in all its CGI glory, but then Kong discovers an ancient temple with giant gorilla handprints on the outside just like his. He goes inside and looks around, yet nothing ever gets discussed. This is the most important scientific discovery in hundreds of years, maybe more, yet nobody says a word or bothers to postulate anything.
In the previous film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, there’s a character played by Zhang Ziyi who serves as the lore informant on all the Titans. Whenever there’s a new monster, the third generation Monarch has plenty of tales to impart on those who are less familiar. In Godzilla vs. Kong, we get no appreciation for the folklore underneath these creatures or the Hollow Earth itself – just a forward-looking scope that can’t wait until they can finally get to fighting. Can’t they just fight already?!?
There are things that get the CGI treatment that don’t even need to, and are only done so to preserve congruity, such as a ship in the water that looks like it’s one of those carnival games where you have to throw the balls into the holes to make the small plastic race horse get to the finish line in order to win a stuffed unicorn. Nothing in this movie is real; there’s not even any character depth to serve as some sort of compensation.
Writers Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island) both have some great projects under their belts, which makes it even more curious why here, in their first time collaborating, they can’t seem to bring anything substantial to the surface, having a painfully hard time finding any depth or themes in the story, or arcs for their human characters.
As good as the fights are, Wingard never knows how to build up suspense for his titular monster characters. Godzilla, who’s supposed to be both frightening and heroic, never feels like either here. In both 2014’s Godzilla and the subsequent King of the Monsters, the lizard is given a personality and a motive. Here he’s only a pawn for the marquee. Kong is the only one who gets the proper treatment, the 104-foot ape is our actual protagonist and the only character worth connecting to.
But while his connection to the Fay Wrays and Brie Larsons of the silver screen felt authentic in the past, his bond in this film with the little mute child, albeit cute, gets milked dry in its shameless attempt at manipulating the audience.
I felt nothing substantial while watching this movie, and I can’t see how anyone else would either. Every character just seems to spend the entire film with tears welled up in their eyes. Wingard, who’s typically a horror director, really tries to manufacture emotion at every turn, presumably to make up for the absence of depth elsewhere.
Entertaining on a purely superficial level, the biggest saving grace of Godzilla vs. Kong is its reminder for us of why we go to the movies. For any of us who watched this one at home, the experience was much less of an escape and much more of an emotional void. Despite its flaws, watching this spectacle on a giant screen where these Titans can truly be 30 feet tall, suddenly the lack of depth feels a little more tolerable. And if Godzilla vs. Kong, in its own weird, subverted way, can serve to remind us of why we go to the movies, then I suppose it’s good for something.