As the worldwide box office begins to heal from the effects of a pandemic driven shut down, questions arise as to how movie theaters are going to return to business as normal. What proved to be a challenge in 2020 was the fact that movie theaters had no way to operate while the pandemic was raging, which proved to be fortuitous for the growing competition of streaming services. For a full year, most people were shut away in their homes with their only source of entertainment being what they were able to watch on their TV’s or mobile devices. Coincidently, 2020 was also the year that many new streaming platforms launched, and were finding themselves all of a sudden responsible of carrying the burden of being the only outlet for new films from Hollywood. Now that movie theaters across America are allowed to open, the problem that they face is trying to convince people to return back to the movies after a year of audiences growing comfortable with streaming their content instead. There are many people eager to return (myself included, and I already have multiple times), but as of right now Hollywood is still a little unsure of the sea worthy conditions of returning to normal business. For them, streaming almost looks like the more financially stable release model at the moment, and they are more willing to invest their future in that arena. Movie theaters are in desperate need of proving that they can compete in this new market, and that requires the right kind of movie to bring people back to the theaters in numbers big enough to garner the studios attention. That film in particular needs to be something that more than anything else is a crowd pleaser, and one that demands a first viewing on the big screen. Of course, audiences have varied tastes, so what kind of movies out there are monstrously monumental enough to drive people to leave the home and come back to the movies.
From the partnership of Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers, we are getting the newest film in their Monster Universe franchise titled Godzilla vs. Kong. The title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get, as the movie brings together two of cinema’s most famous giant monsters for a one on one battle to decide who is the king of the monsters. Starting with 2014’s reboot of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth film in the franchise thus far, which has also included the films Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). The characters though go back even further, and are the featured stars of some of cinemas more important and influential films. King Kong, of course, made his debut in the 1933 film of the same name, which was a landmark in visual effects history with the stop motion used on Kong being a groundbreaking feat for it’s time. Kong has since been updated and given a bigger screen presence in the decades since, including an epic love letter to the original directed by Oscar winner Peter Jackson in 2005. Across the Pacific, Japan offered up their own answer to Kong’s cinematic legacy by creating the mighty Godzilla, using the giant lizard terrifying screen presence as a meditation over the very real anxieties of nuclear annihilation that the country faced post-War. It only seemed natural that both literal screen titans would one day face of against each other, and it has happened very early on in their history as well. Japan created an epic showdown in 1963 titled King Kong vs. Godzilla, though being a film from the 60’s, it involved two actors in suits wrestling around on a miniature set. Now, with all of our advances in CGI animation, we can actually get a big screen duel with these cinematic icons that really feels authentic to the characters’ monstrous size and power. Thus far, the new Monster Universe movies have given us a good taste of just how powerful these monsters are, but can the showdown between these two titans live up to the legacy that both of them have embodied for decades.
Being the fourth film in an ongoing series, Godzilla vs. Kong picks up where the previous ones left off. In particular, it does feel like the sequel to two of the last movies, carrying over threads from both Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The movie starts with Kong being contained and monitored on Skull Island by the Monarch Corporation; the organization responsible for monitoring and containing the race of Titan beasts that inhabit the Earth. Within his containment, Kong has managed to befriend a deaf girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottie), who is looked after by the Monarch representative on Skull Island, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). ON the other side of the world, a facility belonging to the Apex Corporation is suddenly attacked by Godzilla. Up to this point, it was believed that Godzilla was a protector of humanity, so this attack leads many to worry that Godzilla has turned and that he must be either neutralized or destroyed. The CEO of Apex, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), believes he has the answer and he seeks out a theoretical scientist named Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) who believes in the Hollow Earth theory that is thought to be the place of origin for all these Titan creatures; another world within our own. Simmons tells Lind that he can get there to find a power source capable of defeating Godzilla, but they need another Titan to lead them through the passage. So, Kong is enlisted and brought to the closest entry point to the Hollow Earth in Antarctica, but in order to get there, he must survive being tracked down by the mighty king of Monsters. Meanwhile, a conspiracy nut named Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) has discovered something mysterious that Apex has been hiding and he enlists the help of Godzilla expert Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her tag along school friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), a computer hacker. As they dig deeper into the inner workings of Apex, they discover that there could be even more trouble brewing that could endanger both Godzilla and Kong, something that the already makes the contentious relationship between the monsters even more complicated. As so much mayhem begins to unfold, we learn more clearly who stands on top as the alpha of all the mightiest monsters on Earth, and who deserves that title in the end.
Thus far, the Monsters Universe has been a mixed bag. I stated pretty clearly in my review of the original Godzilla in this franchise that it took itself a bit too seriously. The human characters were wooden, the tone was far too somber, and there was far too little of Godzilla in the movie as a whole. Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a bit better, but still focused a bit too heavily on the human drama and not enough on Godzilla himself, who was no more than a supporting player in his own film. I get it that you can’t just have monsters fighting monsters for an entire film; that you need something to break up the film between fights. But the filler thus far seems to have missed the point of these movies in general. Before, the filmmakers wanted to treat this as heavy, epic drama, as that was thought to be the answer to making the human characters feel more grounded and believable. But, this is not Shakespeare; this is Godzilla. Sure, the original movie from the 50’s had the very serious subtext of nuclear annihilation underneath it, but the filmmakers at Toho Studios also knew that they were making crowd pleasing entertainment. The tone was much better achieved in Kong: Skull Island, which in a way took it’s inspiration from Vietnam war movies and followed that all the way through. As a result, it was a perfect mix of monster mayhem and broad action film clichés, which worked together harmoniously. I’m happy to say that Godzilla vs. Kong fits more within that tone set by Skull Island. It’s a movie that really does feel like they mastered the formula of what these movies should be, with the monsters’ themselves at the forefront. It doesn’t waste anytime getting the two titular titans on screen together, with a magnificent sea battle at the end of the first act. From that first showdown, we get exactly what was promised us, and the movie does an excellent job of establishing just how monumental that battle is.
The movie was directed by established horror film director Adam Wingard, known for breakout thrillers like You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014). Wingard is working with a far more substantial budget than he normally starts with and in a more mainstream venue. But, his command over the tone of this movie really helps to make it all work. First thing that he does really well here is to devote so much time to the actual monsters themselves. The uninteresting human characters are mostly relegated to the sidelines this time and character development for them is minimal. We are dealing with human characters this time that are archetypal rather than dimensional, and that helps move the story forward much more effectively. A great example of this is shown with the return of the character of Madison, who was central to the plot of King of the Monsters. In that movie, too much time was devoted to her family situation, with her mother played by Vera Farmiga taking a villainous turn and being responsible for unleashing the fearsome King Ghidorah on the world. Here, Madison is just there to connect the two movies together, with Stanger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown returning in the role. And as a result of not being bogged down with uninteresting human drama, she’s able to define more of a personality for the character. Like many of the other characters in the movie, she knows her place in the story and she’s there to serve it; no more, no less. It’s a similar tact that Guillermo Del Toro took in defining the human characters in Pacific Rim (2013); a good model to follow. Don’t try to overthink your movie’s tone; just embrace the silliness. And that is what makes Godzilla vs. Kong better than it’s predecessors, with the exception of the equally silly and entertaining Kong: Skull Island. Even still, the human characters are still the weakest element of the movie, but at least this time they are not the thing that defines the movie as a whole. The only complaint is that even though the movie is closer to getting the tone right, I just wish that the human side of the story would have embraced the weirdness even more. The characters are better, but still boring. At least in Skull Island, you had personalities like Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly to add some flavor just based on who they are. Apart from a couple of actors like Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, the human characters are good, but mostly bland. At least this time, their impact is minimal.
On the other side, the development of the monsters is far more superior than what we’ve seen before. In particular, the movie devotes a lot of emotional investment in Kong himself. Though the movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong, it should be stated that the film primarily revolves around Kong. He gets the emotional arc of the story, and it is a satisfying one as well. Wingard and the writers did a phenomenal job of drawing sympathy for the character, helping us to understand (without words) what are his wants and needs. And the movie takes him on a journey of self discovery as well. It’s a portrayal that is respectful to what has come before with the character, through his many cinematic iterations, and at the same time cements him as a central hero within this particular franchise. At the same time, the movie does a good job of establishing Godzilla’s motivations as well. This isn’t a battle of titans like in Batman v Superman that makes little sense and exists only pit two popular characters on screen at the same time for the sake of drawing an audience. It’s more like a battle seen in Marvel’s Civil War where it’s a fight where it’s hard to root for one over the other, because both characters have clear reasons why they want to best the other. For Godzilla, he doesn’t want to lose his place as the Alpha, knowing that Kong is his biggest challenge to that reign, and Kong has a stake in preserving not just his own livelihood, but those of the humans he has grown to care for. That’s why when they fight, the stakes are clearly defined for both sides. The movie does a good job of making it so that either Titan is worth rooting for, and that there is no shame in picking the wrong champion. Given the history of these two characters, it’s satisfying to see that there is reverence for their presence on screen, and that makes their showdown feel all the more monumental. And even though it is primarily Kong’s movie as a whole, Godzilla is never missed and is used to great effect as a presence within this story.
Visually, the movie is also a welcome improvement over it’s predecessor. One of the things that I disliked about Godzilla: King of the Monsters was that it had too many scenes cast in darkness, making it hard to see the battles on screen. The first showdown in that movie between Godzilla and Ghidorah particularly was hard to watch because it took place in a blizzard, which blurred the field of vision even more. The first Godzilla had more visibility, and that helped with that movie’s giant set pieces, but that film’s problem was that there were too little of those scenes in general. Here, the battle scenes are well shot, lit, and easy to follow. Adam Wingard particularly uses a lot of interesting angles and colors to add some visual splendor to his battle scenes. A showdown in downtown Hong Kong in particular is cast with the neon glow of the nearby buildings, and that makes the battle far more interesting to watch than it otherwise normally would’ve been. The movie also embraces a far more fantastical portrayal of the world itself. The Hollow Earth subterranean world that Kong must find his origins within is a remarkably realized environment that definitely feels like something that we’ve never seen before. It’s also a reason why this movie certainly demands a big screen presentation. With homages to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1978), this movie is a feast for the eyes and ears, and it just wouldn’t feel right experiencing the movie for the first time on a TV set. Though the option is out there thanks to a dual premiere on HBO Max, this is the kind of movie that definitely reminds it’s audience why movie theaters exist. Some movies are just too big to contain on a small screen, and the bigger truly is the better option. I honestly think that reactions to this movie may vary widely due to how people choose to watch it, at home or at the theater, and my thinking is that the latter will likely be more positive towards the movie overall. It’s certainly how I felt watching this film and I get the feeling that many of the people in my same screening felt the same. It will be interesting to see if that’s the case, because it will tell us a lot about where the future of movie theaters will stand over time.
With the pandemic hopefully in the rear view mirror, movie theaters needs films desperately that can only be fully appreciated in a theater setting. I do think that Godzilla vs. Kong is that kind of crowd pleasing movie that demands a theatrical experience to fully enjoy, but it’s hard to say if it will be the movie that gives theaters the immediate boost that it needs. Right now, theaters are still at limited capacity, so the ability to jam theaters full of people is still not possible. But there was something that did please me greatly when I saw the film. During the big battle scenes, when either Kong or Godzilla demonstrated an amazing move on one another, I heard something in the theater that I never thought I would miss so much over this last year; cheering. People were delighted by what they were watching in the theater, and to hear even a smaller crowd give out an audible cheer during this screening was a very positive sign. People want to be able to have that experience again; to be able to cheer with delight in response to what they are watching on the big screen. It’s the communal experience of enjoying a movie together with strangers that I think many people miss a lot since this pandemic began, and hearing just a little bit of that shared audience excitement just made me so grateful to be there and feeling that again. We have a long way to go still, but I feel that the desire to come back to the movies is out there still, and I’m so glad that Godzilla vs. Kong helped remind us of what the cinema experience was like before it went away. Though everyone should do what makes them feel safe, I do strongly recommend watching Godzilla vs. Kong in a theater. HBO Max does give you a safe at home option as well if you need it, but to truly get the full experience, it has to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. As this movie has shown, when these two screen icons fight, we all win, and hopefully it is the monster hit that helps to save the theatrical experience as a whole.