Since its release, reactions to Godzilla vs. Kong seem to have been divided between two extremes. On the one hand, you have moviegoers proclaiming it a messy failure with little to no artistic value. On the other, you have avid fans who embrace the film’s over-the-top and cheesy execution. ‘It’s a movie about a giant lizard fighting a giant monkey. What do you expect?’ they proclaim. Ignoring the fact that Kong is an ape rather than a monkey (seriously), this very polarizing reaction to the film does leave a lot open to discussion. Just what is Godzilla vs. Kong?
A Tale of Two Godzillas
The Godzilla series is divided into two camps. Let’s begin by discussing Godzilla No. 1. Given the evolution of the series, people often forget that the original 1954 classic was a somber, potent allegory for Japan’s trauma following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the Monsterverse began in 2014, one of the primary goals was to recapture that feeling, weaving a story of ecological upheaval on an apocalyptical scale.
Some of the best Godzilla films offer more food for thought along with monster action. The first two films in the Heisei era during the 80s and the 90s were such examples. The 1984 film updated the atomic bombing allegory to reflect tensions during the cold war. The underrated Godzilla vs. Biollante crafted a story of the dangers of genetic engineering while also serving as a potent tale of grief and loss. I won’t lie, this is the Godzilla I prefer, and the 2014 film shared the same ambition. Like the Heisei era, there were complications.
Following the poor box office for Godzilla vs. Biollante, the Heisei series decided to return to the more extravagant nature of the earlier films, resurrecting Godzilla’s chief rival of King Ghidorah and crafting a story of time travel and mech battles. The resulting Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah may have lacked the subtlety of the previous two entries, but it was both a massive hit, and massively entertaining. As with Biollante, the 2014 Godzilla opened to a similarly polarizing response, which in turn caused the studio to abandon a more serious tone in favor of a more action-oriented series. This brings us to Godzilla No. 2.
Embrace the Madness
The second class of Godzilla films are some of the most colorful, outlandish and all-around enjoyable pieces of entertainment you’ll ever see. The Godzilla series has contained everything from aliens to time travel, to prehistoric islands overflowing with great beasts. These films often don’t make a lot of sense, but who cares? The movies are so massively fun that it won’t matter that an invading alien army’s plan doesn’t make a lot of sense, or that a time travel story is overflowing with continuity errors. Godzilla vs. Kong is firmly in the second camp.
It would be one thing if filmmakers tried for something more ambitious and failed to deliver, which is arguably what happened with the 2014 film. The makers of Godzilla vs. Kong had only one ambition, and that was to deliver a good time for the audience. Such a philosophy is hardly a bad thing, and really works for the benefit of Godzilla vs. Kong. Some genre films take themselves too seriously, and in an effort to make themselves look deeper only come across as obnoxious. Godzilla vs. Kong not only acknowledges how silly it is; it relishes it.
One area that Godzilla vs. Kong succeeded in was its advertising. Both the 2014 film and King of the Monsters were some of my biggest disappointments in the theater because they were sold as more apocalyptic takes on the character, a far cry from the monster romps we got. I since warmed up to both films. Godzilla vs. Kong was never sold as that. From the first time Kong punched Godzilla to a blaring hip-hop soundtrack in the trailer, most moviegoers knew exactly what we were getting into. That trailer was firmly in my mind when going to the theater. I kept telling myself ‘This movie is going to be outrageous. Just let it happen.’ That philosophy made this experience the most fun I’d had with a Monsterverse film on an initial viewing.
Godzilla vs. Kong contains some of the most over-the-top imagery in the history of the series, from Kong fighting Godzilla with a giant radioactive axe to Godzilla shooting his atomic breath all the way to the Earth’s hollow core. The Godzilla series has never been a stranger to over-the-top imagery, from his victory dance on another planet to him fighting a giant lobster with its own severed claw. The difference here is we get to see those ridiculous moments with a big-budget gloss, which somehow is even more over the top. This movie is a noisy bombastic riot, and I loved it.
Comparison to Other Blockbusters
As with previous Monsterverse movies, the human side of things is still not that well developed. While some will say this is an unfair criticism, I’d argue it’s still possible to have interesting human stories to compliment the monster action, such as in the aforementioned Biollante. But there is a big difference between the characters here versus the characters in say, Michael Bay’s Transformers films. Conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes and Madison’s friend Josh may be a little goofy, but unlike a lot of the characters in Bay’s films, they never become loathsome. Sure they could be better, but unlike Skids and Mudflap, they never detract from the fun.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the film is Kaylee Hottle’s Jia. The character, who is deaf, communicates with Kong via sign language, a nice little nod to real-world communications with our ape relatives. This also results in some very fun moments between the cast, such as when Jia signs that Dr. Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is a ‘coward’ but Dr. Andrews (Rebecca Hall) tells him she said he was ‘brave.’ This is later paid off with perhaps not only the funniest moment in the movie, but the biggest laugh I got out of the entire Monsterverse.
Another thing that sets this apart from a Bay film is how well the action works. Bay has a tendency to oversaturate the screen with too many moving parts, leaving his action messy and unfocused. By contrast, the action in Godzilla vs. Kong is superbly well-staged, and know how to keep the focus where it should be. Whenever Godzilla and Kong fight, that’s where your attention goes. To top it off, the set pieces also have a great deal of variety, from a sea battle atop an aircraft carrier to a grudge match in the neon streets of Hong Kong. You never see the same action scene twice, and they’re never not beautiful.
When people bring up faults with the film, a common response is ‘what did you expect?’ While I agree on some level with this, I also feel it’s very disingenuous to handwave away any point someone tries to bring up about the film. True, the movie is only trying to be a fun action blockbuster, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas it could have done better with.
It definitely does have a vastly different tone than the previous Monsterverse films, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have mixed feelings about that. For its faults, I did like the tone the 2014 film was going for, and think that would have been perfectly suited for a Godzilla film. Godzilla vs. Kong is by contrast a cartoon. It’s a fun cartoon.
One area that I was very disappointed in was the son of Serizawa. Serizawa was one of the most significant characters of the previous Monsterverse films who viewed Godzilla as a friend. For his son to try and destroy that which his father held dear is something the film never really explores. That the character is a Serizawa is never really addressed, leaving us to wonder what the point was to begin with.
Godzilla vs. Kong is a chaotic ball of madness and spectacle. This “everything and the kitchen sink” approach may not be for everyone, and people are right to say that a movie like Godzilla vs. Kong could have been something more intelligent in the hands of better filmmakers. As it stands, Godzilla vs. Kong is just fun. How many things are just that?