By Elias Savada.
Over-the-top action (and) ludicrous to the max, yet if you expel all your notions of common sense, there’s a chance you might enjoy it.”
A couple of senior citizens – longtime movie icons, too – walk into a big city bar and start a fight. One is recognized having gotten his start in deep sea monster movies during the first decade of the nuclear age; the other gained fame and a dame in 1930s New York City. Both have been called kings.
Well, by a bar if you mean the world and, if by senior citizens you mean two of the most menacing relics of 20th-century monsterdom, then you’re probably watching Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth oversized episode in the Warner Bros.-Legendary Entertainment MonsterVerse series. The battle of the Alpha Titans is the stuff of legends, as the makers (and marketers) of this film want you to believe. No doubt, fans – and folks just aching to go watch anything in a theater – will gobble it up. Or you can watch it on HBOMax for the next month.
Horror maestro Adam Wingard, whose best efforts have been the 2011 slasher film You’re Next and the thriller The Guest (2014), but also having sported a few turkeys more recently (Blair Witch, a 2016 sequel to the 1999 film, and the supernatural thriller Death Note the following year), has taken the reigns of this big budget ($160-200 million) escapade. For the most part he shows every penny of those dollars. I just wished the screenwriters, Eric Pearson (who also spends time in the Marvel universe (Thor: Ragnarok and the forthcoming Black Widow) and Max Borenstein, having worked on some of those earlier Godzilla/Kong crossovers, would have added a bit of logic to the mix. Instead, you’re bludgeoned with fiscal fantasies that suggest sizable fortunes being spent by governments and industries (here envisioned as Apex Cybernetics, run by one of those evil genius CEOs). Money’s no object when you’re running huge biodome structures straight out of The Truman Show, making high tech vehicles to race toward the center of the Earth (Jules Verne did not get a credit), or building a huge, unproven mechanical replica of one of those bar patrons for totally unscrupulous reasons. Not a penny to prevent the lovely skyline of Hong Kong from being ground to a pulp in the climactic denouement that features a slugfest for the ages (at least until the next chapter arrives).
So, now that I’ve ranted, I’ll give you some of the basics so you’ll have a running start on whether you’ll spend time with the film, or not. As the film begins, Kong is seemingly retired on his tropical paradise, where no one cares if he scratches his butt in front of all the other animals. His best friend is Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a young deaf girl who has a poignant connection with the ape. He’s actually captive in a biodome run by Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).
Meanwhile, Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is a man who “needs to prove existence of Hollow Earth to salvage his tarnished reputation.” If you pay attention to the cutesy opening credits, everyone has an amusing descriptor phrase attached to their name – before those catchphrases are too quickly redacted. Even the techies get their due diligence, as in “Working from skeletal remains, costume designer ANN FOLEY fleshes out renderings of monsters’ appearance” or “The reality is stranger than anything in a screenplay by a raving lunatic and makes ERIC PEARSON and MAX BORENSTEIN seem credible by comparison.” These act as a foreboding to the corn I alluded to earlier.
Oh yeah, Dr. Lind gets a chance to prove that inner world theory, thanks to the efforts of Walter Simmons (Demián Bachir), that big bucks CEO playing mixed-up Dr. Frankenstein with some hardwired DNA special sauce taken from the skull of the dead monster Ghidorah.
The best role in the film is the conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (a very funny Brian Tyree Henry), trying to upend the shenanigans at the Pensacola, Florida, offices of Apex Cybernetics. Better living through robotics (not). Godzilla, sensing some of those MonsterVerse hijinks, takes direct aim at the facility.
The screenplay actually carries the introductions easily enough, with the last stragglers being students watching CNN coverage. That would include Madison Russell (Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown), daughter of Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), reprising their roles from the earlier Godzilla films, with Brown getting a major promotion to second billing under Skarsgård. Julian “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Dennison plays Madison’s best friend, Josh, but it’s underwritten in a film with too many moving human parts.
There are some wondrous visuals, particularly the ones set on the planet’s innards, a monumental event that, surprising, is not being recorded for the history books or History Channel. And, hey, where is the sunlight coming from during this scene. Mirrors? And I marveled at the breathable air and temperate climate. Just what you’d expect deep beneath the planet’s crust.
The dialogue is passable but can easily stray into something quite foolish. When Kong decides a new weapon in his arsenal needs recharging, Ilene spouts “It’s drawing radiation from the core like it’s charging,” as if everyone on the planet hasn’t plugged in their multitude of electronic devices using similar technology.
Yes, I’m nit-picking. I’m also not referencing several other missteps that drove me batty. Enough! It’s time to talk up the 30-minute climax that tears down most of neon-lit Hong Kong. Skyscrapers crumble, people start to scream – what took them so long? – and the battle of the alpha monsters tears it to rubble. For all the damage done, only a few deaths are shown, although the unseen tragedies must number in the thousands. (Instead, as the happy ending shows the cast embracing, no one seems to be mourning the dead and injured.)
Godzilla vs. Kong is pure over-the-top action. (There’s your pull-quote if any p.r. rep needs one.) The film is ludicrous to the max, yet if you expel all your notions of common sense, there’s a chance you might enjoy it. Keep telling yourself that it’s just a crazy, big-budgeted sci-fi monster film, and you just want to have fun.
For me, it just inspires silliness.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).