Once upon a time at the cinema, the deadliest monsters weren’t lurking in our own airways, weren’t infiltrating nursing homes to murder our loved ones, and weren’t other humans screaming in our faces about their hallucinatory conspiracy theories. In our shared realm of pure imagination, creatures fifty feet tall or more threatened our lives, our livelihoods, our close-quarters societies, and our very infrastructure that is the ultimate status symbol of superior lifeforms. In each rueful tale humankind was brought low by its hubris and its denial of its own frailty, screaming at the heavens as our deathblow came not from ironically itty-bitty microorganisms, but from amazing colossal oppressors who deemed us just as squashable as ants. Though they were arguably empowered by humanity’s sins, at least we could see them coming from a mile away and escape them if we had a cool enough car. In those days, dire threats to our entire species were much more fun.
Blame nostalgia for old-fashioned monsters, as opposed to today’s monsters outside our windows, as the primary motivation that drove me to see Godzilla vs. Kong in theaters and break my own rules.
We talked about this. Well, I talked about this, anyway. When I formulated my rules for moviegoing without dying or murdering by virus, a key aspect of Step 2, “Desolation”, was that we had to wait till a film had been in theaters for weeks before venturing forth for our turn, long after any crowds had come and gone, such as they were in the pandemic. As it happens, GvK opened March 31st. My son and I saw it the following Monday, April 5th…a full five days before I received my second Pfizer shot and therefore nearly three weeks before achieving full efficacy. As we understood it according to constantly shifting guidelines and research results, the early stages of vaccination were kindasorta okay periods of bodily defense against COVID-19, but they weren’t peak defense periods. Get both shots, wait two weeks, then go crazy Broadway-style. That was the rule, and I nearly stuck with it.
The movie is to blame, and the fact that we wanted to catch it in the Dolby Cinema at AMC, the company’s next size down from IMAX with a slightly more HD picture and rapturously overwhelming sound cranked up to volume 52. It was the same format in which we experienced Tenet, which sounded enthralling but confused and irritated us. If we’d had our way we also would’ve seen Wonder Woman 1984 like that, but we waited too long and our theater booted it out of the Dolby Cinema in favor of The Marksman, of all things. Considering how much of a letdown WW84 was, perhaps we should’ve recognized that vote of no-confidence that implied, “We are so done with this mishmash that we’re replacing it with Liam Neeson’s 7,006th elderly shoot-’em-up.” If only we’d heeded that sign.
We were afraid of that same swap-out happening with GvK. Waiting a month would’ve meant seeing it in an average screen. We were so blown away by the Dolby-tacular version of the previous chapter, 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, that we wanted to relive that experience, even more so considering we only saw four films in theaters in 2020 and were really missing that larger-than-life experience. Sure enough, a quick check of the theater’s listings confirms last weekend their Dolby Cinema was turned over to a re-released Top Gun. So yes, I confess we made haste and prayed our masks and AMC’s much-touted 25th-century magical ventilation upgrades would save us.
We shared the theater with about a dozen teens and young adults. No one else sat in our row. The Dolby Cinema auditorium also features wider rows and taller walls between them. We honestly couldn’t see all those kids from where we sat unless we stood up. All told, it worked: we’re now over four weeks past and neither of us got Coronavirus’d. Props to AMC for making it work. I still feel a tinge of guilt over it, though.
As for the movie itself? Eh. Pretty keen for what it was. And LOUD. SUPER LOUD. RELENTLESSLY, JARRINGLY, THRILLINGLY DEAFENING WITH THE RUMBLING AND THE CRASHING AND THE COLLAPSING OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF BUILDINGS AND THE UTTER FLATTENING OF KONG KONG THAT PROBABLY AMUSED CERTAIN EASTERN HEMISPHERE OVERLORDS AND THE WANTON MAYHEM AND THE GARGANTUAN WRESTLING MOVES AND THOSE GLORIOUSLY METALLICA-CONCERT-LEVEL SPEAKERS. Well, not really. Metallica in 1992 was 100 times louder. But it’s nice that AMC tries.
Godzilla vs. Kong is of course the culmination of Warner Brothers’ attempt at its own cinematic universe, a four-episode arc that only sees maybe tens of thousands of humans killed rather than billions of lifeforms like the ones who died on the Avengers’ watch. When we drop in on Our Animals, Kong has been relocated against his will to a Truman Show dome after all life on Skull Island was wiped out except himself and a tiny deaf girl who gets him. Meanwhile, the King of Monsters is off wandering the world incognito because he is the world’s stealthiest colossus and nobody puts Godzilla in a corner.
Like many of us today, Kong is tired of sheltering in place, no matter how many 4K outdoor-scenery wallpapers are surrounding him. He needs to find his forever home, and odds are the world governments would love a solution that doesn’t cost them trillions of dollars. His scientist caretakers think they’ve found an alternative in a long-running subplot hinted at in earlier chapters — the Hollow Earth. If you know where to spelunk just right, you can drop thousands of miles down inside our seemingly solid planet and find a natural paradise unsoiled by humans, as the faux-science goes here, definitely not in the same cinematic universe as that underrated quasi-classic The Core. Among the many challenges is trying to figure out how to stuff Kong into a skyscraper-sized cardboard box, use a missile to poke air holes in it, and mail him there. Then they remember the USPS sucks lately and send him on an aircraft-carrier ocean cruise instead.
Alas, moving day gets complicated. Little did they know creatures taller than a giraffe are somehow all psychically linked, aware of each other’s presences when man’s technology isn’t hiding them from each other, and easily overcome with macho rivalry that compels them to meet-ugly and fight-and-fight-and-fight. Director Adam Wingard and five credited writers (including King of the Monsters director Mike Dougherty and one of the Pirates of the Caribbean guys) waste little time on convoluted contrivances to trick the titans into clashing. When you’re a titan, it’s what you do.
If you’ve seen as many pop-culture crossovers as I have, 95% of then old comic books, then you’re well aware of how these things go nearly every single time. The title characters meet. They fight. Then they set aside their differences and team up to fight the real villain. In this case the final boss battle was set up in the previous chapter with the leftover parts of King Ghidorah and the gleaming hints of a classic nemesis from Godzilla’s Rogues Gallery: his evil robot twin Mechagodzilla. Suffice it to say much rowdy rumbling ensues, nearly all of it inflicted upon poor, shining, cinematographically splendiferous Hong Kong, which suffers quadrillions in property damage. On a related note, the film’s Chinese box office has been pretty healthy as folks were awfully excited to check that out.
By and large, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers mightily on its few promises. Fans of the previous ones will appreciate the confluence of their separate styles. Kong’s scenes with the deaf girl and with his Hollow Earth playground sometimes achieve visual poetry as King of the Monsters did in its artier moments, while the monster melees revel in outrageous turns and wrestling moves that recall the madcap mayhem of Kong: Skull Island. Godzilla himself remains an emotional enigma lurking in the shadows until it’s time to strike, strictly in one-note “show of force” mode. Though the cameras clearly love the underdog Kong more, their three-round match is less of a toss-up if you’re aware Toho Ltd., Godzilla’s franchise caretakers, are extremely overprotective and aren’t about to permit their cash-cow lizard to costar in an American film that ends with a giant ape using his severed head as a hand puppet. Man, if only.
GvK is scheduled to hit home video later this month beyond its original HBO Max stint, if you’re of a mind to root for its opponents on your home screens where you can pretend you’re playing an amped-up reboot of the old Rampage game. As of today it’s still in theaters, if you feel like you’re prepared for a long-awaited reunion with the silver screen and two of its biggest, noisiest stars ever. For my money King of the Monsters was bigger and bolder and higher-minded in its intentions, but GvK is an eminently “treat yo’self” kind of reward for anyone who’s ready to field-test their vaccines, kick back and relax with a throwback to those halcyon days when all the best and bloodiest battles were at the movies, not on Twitter.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I barely mentioned the humans, did I? As it happens, there were some.
Best in Show is Rebecca Hall (Starter for 10, The Prestige, The Town, more more more) as the scientist who’s also guardian of the deaf orphan (charming newcomer Kaylee Hottle) and who’s therefore in the best position to liaise with the giant ape as needed. True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard is the token male scientist who has to break a few things and at one point tangle with evil critters. Blink and you’ll miss Lance Reddick from The Wire in a role drastically edited down to an extra with maybe two lines.
Returning from King of the Monsters are Millie Bobby Brown and her dad Kyle Chandler, who’s relegated to a few brief scenes of disappointed concern. Brown gets new sidekicks in the form of Brian Tyree Henry (of the great, great Atlanta) as a kaiju-conspiracy podcaster who’s high-string but neither crazy nor wrong, and Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Deadpool 2) as a tag-along pal. Their separate subplot, which involves an underground rocket ride and some stealth side quests, is purely comic relief and could be deleted from the film altogether and make nary a difference, except the whole would feel all the glummer without their parts.
It wouldn’t be a giant-monster flick without human greed, hubris, incompetence, and fatal underestimation of monsters. Our envoy from that realm is Demián Bichir (Alien: Covenant, The Midnight Sky), billionaire mastermind of the Mechagodzilla program who merely wants to save humanity but does it wrong. His daughter Eiza González (Baby Driver) stands to gain from his mistakes, maybe even learn from them.
How about those end credits? No, unlike the last two films, there’s no scene after the Godzilla vs. Kong end credits, because for now they have no sequel to foreshadow. Whether or not a groundswell of demand spurs the studio to consider expending resources on a Phase II is up to You, The Viewers at Home.