Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) review

Alexander Skarsgard (Dr. Nathan Lind), Millie Bobbie Brown (Madison Russell), Rebecca Hall (Dr. Ilene Andrews), Brian Tyree Henry (Bernie Hayes), Shun Oguri (Ren Serizawa), Eiza Gonzalez (Maia Simmons), Julian Dennison (Josh Valentine), Lance Reddick (Guillermin), Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Demian Bichir (Walter Simmons), Kaylee Hottle (Jia)

Directed by Adam Wingard
The Short Version: The last time these two Titans clashed was in 1962; and in that time both combatants have been destined for a rematch. Over 50 years later, Godzilla and Kong step back into the global ring for a Falls-Count-Anywhere, Last Monster Standing Death Match. It's a hard-fought battle that finds Mechagodzilla interfering to snatch the title of World Heavyweight Titan; but he gets sidelined by one of the dumbest scripting ideas ever conceived. Plus, there's a weak storyline populated by even weaker characters; and the promise of an adventure but never feeling a sense that one is actually taking place. When the smoke finally clears, GVK gives its audience two satisfying confrontations; but delivers less 'Zilla and more Gorilla.
Godzilla hasn't been seen in the five years since he killed King Ghidorah. Meanwhile, King Kong has been encased inside a dome on Skull Island for study by Monarch. Godzilla is drawn to, and curiously attacks a corporate industrial complex and its founder seeks a mysterious power from the center of the Earth that only King Kong can locate. Eventually, the two monsters will clash; and find themselves the target of a potentially even more powerful enemy.

It's a Clash of the Titans as Godzilla and King Kong get ready to rumble in this eagerly awaited monster mash-up; the fourth in the MonsterVerse series co-produced between Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures. The movie delivers what it advertises but, unfortunately, not much else. GODZILLA VS. KONG showcases two epic battles but ends up ranking slightly below the 2014 GODZILLA and curiously maligned GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), but surpasses the average KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Adam Wingard, late of horror flicks like the home invasion item YOU'RE NEXT (2011) and the needlessly boisterous remake, THE BLAIR WITCH (2014), enters the arena of giant rampaging monsters with GVK. Like him, Michael Dougherty, the previous movie's writer and director, made horror pictures prior to helming the unjustly dissed GKOTM. Dougherty also contributed to the story of GODZILLA VS. KONG. In interviews, Wingard stated there was a lot more footage shot that was cut (reportedly none of it was monster action), going on to say that what's on the screen is his director's cut. Knowing this helps in understanding the choppy nature of the narrative and the lifeless influx of exposition was intentional.
GVK's increase in character development many complained was missing from the previous movie does nothing in making viewers care about them here; much less remember who they are when the monsters aren't on the screen. GKOTM gave you a multitude of characters with just enough periphery information to know who was who. In GVK, you have a handful of new faces that add nothing and makes one wonder why they're even there in the first place. The only new character that stands out is Bernie Hayes (played by Brian Tyree Henry), a colorfully off-kilter conspiracy theorist, podcaster, and former tech for the Apex Corporation. Kinda crazy, he's the only person with his finger on the pulse of everything that's going on. 
The inclusion of a deaf child named Jia who has taught Kong sign language gives the impression she'll be Kong's human companion throughout the movie; but it's another waste of screen time as she's essentially abandoned after a few scenes. The angle of teaching a giant ape to do sign language was explored to far greater effect in the surprisingly terrific RAMPAGE (2016); a giant monster movie that better blends its elements than this one does. The rest of the GVK cast leave no lasting impression; and those returning from the previous movie are basically cameos. Monarch's presence is barely felt as well. Thankfully, the monster scenes support the weight of the movie where everything else threatens to sink it.
One character that could've impacted the picture in a big way is another missed opportunity; that being Shun Oguri's Ren Serizawa, the son of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (played by Ken Watanabe in the previous two Godzilla movies). He's obviously on the opposite end of the integrity spectrum of his father, but the film spends so little time on him that if you're not paying attention you'll not know who he is. That's the result of most of the characters in the picture. To compare, Watanabe's character got less screen time in the previous movie, yet he resonated presence; and ran away with that film's most poignant sequence.

To further contrast, in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), you felt a quest was unfolding before your eyes. The fate of the world was hanging in the balance. For GODZILLA VS. KONG, the filmmakers visualize an adventure, but we feel no sense of one taking place. Much is made of the journey to the Hollow Earth, but the way it unfolds, it's as interesting as walking down the street for a candy bar and a Coke.
The plot is nothing more than finding ways to bring a giant lizard and monkey together who haven't seen one another in over 50 years. Wedged between all that is Kong going to the Earth's Core to find his Axcalibur while encountering flying snakes and bat-chickens; and intermittent shots or mentions of Godzilla to remind you that he is in fact a part of the movie. 

Director Adam Wingard's film is episodic and full of plot holes bigger than the one Godzilla burns to the center of the Earth--allowing a shortcut for Kong and his party to emerge from. Not only does little of it make any sense, but it doesn't even follow the trajectory of the previous film's post-credits sequence. 
Previously, Godzilla had defeated King Ghidorah. But all wasn't as it seemed. In the post-credits scene, Alan Jonah, former military colonel turned eco-terrorist leader, has plans for the remains of the now dead King Ghidorah. Curiously, Jonah and his group of cold-blooded mercenaries are dropped from GODZILLA VS. KONG altogether. This is the first movie in the MonsterVerse line to not carry on from an end-credits cliffhanger.  
King Ghidorah's remaining head does appear (the skull, anyway); utilized in another of the film's fleetingly explored subplots; this one involving a new villain named Walter Simmons. Essentially the same character with the same motivation as Jonah (played by Charles Dance in the previous movie), Demian Bichir's Simmons is a corporate CEO (the Apex Corporation) instead of a globe-trotting environmental terrorist. We don't see much of him; and when his true intentions are revealed moments before his comeuppance, we don't even care. 

The section of the movie taking place in the Hollow Earth setting visualizes, but doesn't really explore, the historical mythology that has provided years of pulp adventure novels and stirred the imaginations of its readers for decades. Astronomer and academic Edmond Halley proposed the idea of a potentially inhabited inner Earth in the late 1600s. Fiction writers such as Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs were inspired by the concept and popularized tales of subterranean worlds filled with various prehistoric life and monsters. Unfortunately, none of that literary wonder seen in various prior film adaptations is captured here.
In GVK, once Kong and Kompany arrive at the Hollow Earth, it's essentially a straight shot to a mountain where Kong finds his Axcalibur. There are no minor side adventures, an exploration in this lost world setting, or anything resembling the harrowing middle portion of Peter Jackson's KING KONG from 2005. Wingard's movie just fast-forwards Kong and Monarch to the location of the power source they're after. 
Then there's a shockingly sloppy moment seen in the final battle that will baffle some viewers as to why something more befitting could've been written considering $200 million was spent on this thing. In it, Mechagodzilla (whose intro is one of the movie's best scenes) is throttling Godzilla and a near-dead King Kong while Bernie and this kid named Josh frantically try to shut down MechaG's programming. The Josh character's one moment to shine is striking upon the brilliant idea of taking Bernie's alcohol flask and simply pouring the liquid all over the control panel that operates MechaG. If that's all it took, had MechaG or one of the other monsters simply stepped on the building you'd of reached the same outcome.

In the Japanese movies they always wrote creative methods in dealing with the monsters. In 1974s GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, the Big G uses a new super power involving turning his body into an electromagnetic force, bringing a retreating Mechagodzilla back to him. This results in Godzilla tearing his head off, and the subsequent smithereens being blown from here to Mt. Fuji. 
In the direct sequel, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), version 2 of the space robot has his controls surgically implanted in the stomach of a woman, the daughter of a scientist. She controls Mechagodzilla (something GVK attempts to convey before King Ghidorah's skull somehow comes to life and pilots MechaG), and only after her suicide to save humanity is Mechagodzilla weakened to the point Godzilla can destroy him. This plot point is similar to the outright sloppiness in GVK, but has greater resonance in that it is emotionally powerful on multiple levels.

Still, where GVK excels is in outrageously over the top shenanigans like a monster fight atop a battleship and the ridiculous highlight of Godzilla blowing a hole clean to the Earth's core. It's both enjoyable and indicative of what's wrong with Hollywood tentpole movies that are all flash and no substance. 
With something like this, it largely succeeds where it matters most. In the end (and as frustrating as it is at times), GVK remains an entertainingly trim 113 minutes. It gives you what you're paying to see even if it's more Gorilla than 'Zilla. A more accurate title would be KONG'S JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (Featuring A Special Appearance By Godzilla).
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