Almost as soon as it hit HBO Max, I watched “Godzilla vs. Kong” for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m a Godzilla fanatic – have been since I was a kid – and any new film starring the big green guy tops my Must See list. The second is that I wanted to pre-screen it for my youngest (8) who is equally monster crazy. The level of violence and scares in “Kong: Skull Island” shocked me, and I wasn’t about to show my kids a film with similar levels of brutality.
Fortunately, “GvK” is as harmless as I hoped it would be, and we were all set. The only catch – we were set to fly out that weekend for Spring Break and there’d be no theaters anywhere around. The situation led to an amusing series of conversations with my boys asking when we could go see “GvK”, while My (exasperated) Fair Lady could only point out the window at the tranquil beauty of a new snowfall on a mountain top and ask why they weren’t focused on that.
“We want to see Godzilla and Kong punch each other in the face,” was typical of the response. Apparently it’s in our blood, and My Fair Lady, many blessings upon her, could only shrug. She doesn’t have to “get it”. You either fall in love with Godzilla in your youth, or you don’t.
The first thing we did when we returned home, aside from sleep, was to buy tickets to the Saturday matinee. A great many moons ago, I worked for a company that did a promotion with the 2014 kickoff to the MonsterVerse. I was friends with the social media director, and as a way of saying thanks for helping her out, she sent me four crew baseball caps from the film. I still wear mine everywhere.
When it was time to go see “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Youngest raced upstairs and came back down wearing his hat. He asked where mine was. I picked it up from the office, and we walked outside with Eldest, who was uninterested in joining us in our choice of fashion. The theater was hardly full, barely 15 people total, but it didn’t matter. The three of us had enough excited energy to fill the room.
We were not disappointed.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” is a grab bag full of ideas, fantastic combat scenes, and more than a little heart. Is it the greatest film of the year? No. But what it does offer is two hours of pure cinematic entertainment, and for that I’m grateful. It felt wonderful to be back in the theater. The film checks all the usual setup/payoff boxes, perfunctorily presents a group of human characters that audiences can choose to care about or ignore, then adds in titanic action sequences on account of the monsters.
The film kicks off with a rapid catch up on all of the Skull Island happenings for the past decades. A super storm has taken over the island for unexplained reasons, and all that’s left is a little girl who sees Kong as her personal protector. Kong, however, is under the protection of Monarch, the shadowy super agency that researches and tracks all the titans across the globe. Meanwhile, Godzilla resurfaces after being absent for three years and does what everyone else does when they leave isolation – head to Florida to absolutely wreck the place.
Protecting Kong and the little girl is Rebecca Hall, a Monarch researcher who believes the two alpha titans are destined for a fight. Across the globe, Apex Systems, run by Demián Bichir, who feels that technology is the only thing that can save humanity from the wrath of the titans. He enlists Alexander Skarsgård’s teacher, a scientist specializing in Hollow Earth investigations, to work with Hall’s character to get to the inside of the planet where a special energy source may be located. Anyone who has seen the original Showra films has an idea where this is going.
At some point, a podcaster played by Brian Tyree Henry gets involved and drags along Millie Bobby Brown from the previous film, as well as Julian Dennison, stopping over in between “Deadpool” films. Honestly, their entire subplot could be dropped and no one would notice. In between the random podcaster rants and his charges explaining everything we’re seeing on screen at the same time as them, we’re given glimpses of a solid movie. I believe studios don’t trust audiences to add two and two anymore, or if they do then they expect the answer to be five.
How hard is it to let the cast stand back and look up in awe at the events on screen (aside from Skarsgård’s character where that’s his entire arc) without explaining what we’re seeing? For example, there’s a bit where the trio is on a high tech mag-lev train, and every single bit of dialog could have been conveyed by showing, not telling. Eye candy isn’t entirely about spectacle. It can be as simple as a person running their hand over something while “acting,” key word there, frightened or curious.
I want to take a moment to call out the lighting in “Godzilla vs. Kong” as it is absolutely gorgeous. Every shot is well lit, and the amount of colors on screen during sequences in Hong Kong and elsewhere are dazzling. A recent trend in films (looking at you, Marvel & Netflix) is for a flatter lighting scheme better suited to television.
Creative lighting setups take time, something in short supply when you’re on as tight a deadline as weekly TV series or factory-run production is. Director Adam Wingard and the rest of the crew designed sequences that explode off the screen. Several scenes function as mere previews for future rides at Universal (you’ll know the ones), but without excellent lighting and solid cinematography, they wouldn’t work near as well as they do.
Know what else they added, odd as it may sound? Soul. Kong isn’t just a collection of pixels. He moves, walks, breathes, and emotes like an actual being. It’s fantastic work and a crucial part of the film because while Kong may not be the first on the title card, he leads the story through to the end. I thought it was a marvelous creation and performance, even up to when it turns ridiculous in the third act. But by then you’re plenty ramped up to watch giant monsters collide and that’s where the movie hits the biggest nail on the head – scale.
Scale is an important element, maybe the most important, to capture when dealing with monsters capable of leveling cities. There are some fluctuations between each of the films in terms of how big each monster truly is, but they’re appropriately shot to give audiences the proper size representation. “GvK” does the opposite of the “Transformers” series by filming things from ground level for the human perspective, only to follow that with elevated, wide-angle shots to convey the scale of an event from how the monsters in question see it.
But then the movie gives us a quiet moment like Kong touching a floating rock and connecting how things around it work. A few sound effects, beautiful visuals, and Junkie XL’s score – that’s everything needed for a moment of elegant wonder.
Sometimes you want a “Citizen Kane” and sometimes you want to see a giant monkey and a giant lizard punch each other in the face. On that front, “Godzilla vs. Kong” does more than deliver the goods. It goes the extra mile by giving Kong a magic axe, by letting Godzilla laugh, and by being genuinely funny when it tries to be. It may not be high art, but it was made by people who wanted it to be and that unbridled enthusiasm pours out of every scene. It’s a fun film that’s a great time in the theater.
The day after our screening, we talked to my parents and filled them in on our Spring Break. Youngest mentioned that we went to “GvK” and that made my mother laugh. She mentioned a time when I called her from my grandparents house when I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, and asked her to tape a “Godzilla” movie on TV. She didn’t recall which one, but it was another one of the endless “versus” films. She smiled when she told us about it, and Youngest laughed.
Falling in love isn’t something that can be explained by words. It’s a feeling, straight from the heart and from the gut, and you either have experienced it or you haven’t. My boys have fallen in love with the lizard from the Land of the Rising Sun and I sincerely hope they never lose that enthusiasm. I haven’t, and I know I never will. Good, bad, or ugly, “Godzilla” films have never failed to make me smile.
It pleases me beyond mere words that my children now have the same love in their hearts, and similar smiles on their faces.