“Godzilla vs. Kong,” Reviewed: A Monster Mush of Two Venerable Franchises

The enduring appeal of both Kong and Godzilla has to do with their simplicity. “King Kong,” made in Hollywood, débuted in 1933; “Godzilla...


The enduring appeal of both Kong and Godzilla has to do with their simplicity. “King Kong,” made in Hollywood, débuted in 1933; “Godzilla,” produced in Japan, came out in 1954. Both films relied on a stark and clarified premise: fantastic monsters let loose in ordinary human reality, which, in the light of their presence, is revealed to be even more hideous than the monsters themselves. That symbolic power, rather than their physical power, is the source of their enduring appeal, and it’s the fundamental element that “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the new mashup, directed by Adam Wingard, stomps into oblivion. The film is garishly overloaded with splices and grafts from other movies, other genres, and other premises, including a mythical setting and an evil corporation. The result is a distracting jumble that reduces the stakes of the movie’s mighty showdown nearly to a vanishing point, and turns the title titans and their other colossal cohorts into the incredible shrinking monsters.

From start to finish, “Godzilla vs. Kong” tilts the viewer’s sympathy toward Kong. Its primate-centric bent is first apparent in a trick borrowed from “2001: A Space Odyssey”: Kong’s discovery and use of tools. At the movie’s start, Kong is entombed in a biodome replica of Skull Island, where he’s under surveillance by a team of scientists, headed by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). Ilene is also the guardian of a girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the last surviving member of the island’s indigenous Iwi people. Jia, who is deaf, communicates with Kong in sign language, a fact that takes Ilene by surprise (and that anchors the ape more firmly on the human side). Jia knows that Kong is restive in his new home, and Kong proves it by pulling a tree from the ground and hurling it, spear-like, at the sky, which is not a sky at all but a simulacrum; the tree shatters it, revealing a high-tech framework beneath. Kong wants to be free, but the sealed-off dome is all that protects him from the ferocious Godzilla, because it is said that the world isn’t big enough for two alpha titans.

Godzilla’s ferocity is displayed soon thereafter, in an attack on Pensacola, Florida, at a huge industrial compound called Apex Cybernetics. Its secretive operations have aroused the suspicions of a local conspiracy-theorist-qua-investigator named Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), who gets a job there in order to glean information, which he then dispenses in a hectic podcast that obsesses a local teen-ager, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison). Apex is run by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), whose self-righteous, ego-mad scheme to save the world—from Godzilla—and take credit for it propels the action into so-called Hollow Earth (a crackpot theory that, in real life, has been bandied about for centuries), to tap into its mighty source of energy. A hollow-earth researcher named Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is recruited for the effort, and he persuades Ilene to recruit Kong. So her team transports Kong, by ocean, to Antarctica, where he’s expected to find the portal to the subterranean energy source.

Kong’s journey, on a colossal barge tugged by an aircraft carrier and supported by a whole fleet, exists only as a pretext for the first fight scene between the ape and the reptile. The best part of that battle takes place early on, when, after some early grappling and stomping, the pair face off on the deck of a carrier and Kong, like the apotheosis of a bar brawler, hauls off and slugs Godzilla with a mighty roundhouse punch. Wingard films at a great distance from the “action” (however computer-graphical it may be), and the effect—such a simple depiction of a classic humanoid gesture, atop a familiar cinematic object—is as good as the movie gets. From there, unfortunately, Wingard and the quintet of screenwriters ramp up the thunder and the plot complications to reach the movie’s climactic battles, in Hong Kong, a half hour later. By that point, they’ve exerted themselves mightily, only to pull the rug out from under the titans and leave them flailing away at each other, and at other adversaries, in a dramatic and audiovisual void.

The movie’s wide and incongruous range of sources include zippy little jetpods plying the skies, as if from the “Star Wars” franchise; robotics from the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the massive, barren, neo-primitive landscapes of the DC Comics nature cult; and extra dashes of “2001,” in Kong’s use of an axe in battle, and in a feeble imitation of the agonized abstractions of the Star Gate sequence as part of a similarly gravity-defying flight. The Disneyfied get-up-and-go teen-heroic spunk that Madison and Josh display—as they join forces with Bernie and find their way to the final showdown—is a deferential sop to the superhero world’s fan base of nerdhood, adolescent and adult, saving the world. For good measure, the film adds the secular sacrament—and sentiment—of a child who shall lead them, in the form of Jia, the only character who can communicate with Kong. In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” and in the larger MonsterVerse to which it belongs, the problem is the competition, whether from Marvel, DC, or the “Star Wars” franchises, all of which involve extravagant science-fiction fantasy. The film takes the easy way out, focussing on a supersonic gravity-inverting mini-jet rather than any glimmer of true emotion, and the apocalyptic destruction of a major city rather than the experience of its citizens—let alone any governmental response. (Notably, governments are absent from the movie, whether in the United States or in Hong Kong—absences that are themselves ideological declarations.) Obligatory attention to familiar characters and story lines takes precedence over imaginative freedom to follow characters and develop situations to their wildest implications. The failure to see even the nearer implications isn’t merely a matter of aesthetics or psychology but of basic decency. The unaddressed collateral damage in “Godzilla vs. Kong” is obscene: after the Pensacola attack, the movie includes a CNN report stating that eight people died, whereas later, in Hong Kong, the movie obliviously and indifferently kills off unnamed, unseen Asians without even counting them.

Classic monster and sci-fi movies, which put the beasts and the inventions front and center, had little need for the art and the aura of movie stars. They were, in any case, mostly low-budget films, and certainly low-prestige—regardless of their merit—and would hardly have attracted the luminaries of the time. Many of the performances in those classics are hectic or campy in a way that befits the movies’ highly artificial subjects. “Godzilla vs. Kong,” by contrast, features big-name actors of depth and range, but they are something worse than squandered—they’re miscast. Before stalking monsters, Henry stole “If Beale Street Could Talk”; Hall lent “Christine” enormous complexity; Chandler was powerful and subtle in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Manchester by the Sea”; and Bichír was moving and memorable in “A Better Life.” With their refinement and psychological subtlety, these actors don’t stand a chance against the biological and mechanical extravagances of “Godzilla vs. Kong”—yet their sophisticated manner only highlights the artifice and absurdity of those creatures. In the end, the movie’s humans and monsters are the ones locked in a cinematic death match, which only leads to mutually assured reduction.

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Newsrust - US Top News: “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Reviewed: A Monster Mush of Two Venerable Franchises
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