Review: 'Godzilla vs. Kong'
Godzilla and King Kong have been around a long time.
Kong make his spectacular cinematic debut in 1933. Godzilla stomped onto the screen in 1954.
Both were immensely successful. Both spawned a slew of spin off movies.
It was inevitable that they would eventually face off and face each other. Truth of the matter is that it already happened in the Japanese movie King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962.
But we live in the age of the MonsterVerse, a horror genre unto itself. The other titles include: Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).
Stylistically, they are a click away from the dozens of superhero movies that have topped the list of top-grossing movies in recent memory.
They all share the common ingredient of splashy, epic entertainment rooted in spectacular digital visual and audio effects.
They go big. And it doesn’t get much bigger than the two most towering fantasy creatures ever imagined.
The ultimate heavyweight match-up is a fantasy film buff’s wildest wet dream.
To its credit, Godzilla vs, King Kong doesn’t disappoint when it comes to state-of-the-art effects. It serves up what you came to see.
The images are dazzling. The audio is deafening.
It's a movie made for the IMAX theater experience.
So why does it fall a little short of being truly noteworthy or memorable?
Let’s start with the fact that, along with all the flashy attributes it shares with the superhero movies, it also shares their worst weakness: reliance on a restrictive formula, which in turn results in suffocating predictability.
I won’t go into detail, but my general complaint about all formula films, whether superhero films, monster films, or super-monster films is their strict adherence to stock heroes and villains, stock storylines and stock action sequences.
There is a lot of similarity. In particular, the obligatory, climactic city-leveling battle between two indestructible foes, incapable of injuring or killing each other.
They fight nevertheless with megaton force that reduces skyscrapers into smoldering rubble.
We’ve witnessed this in movie after movie.
It’s a never ending, continually escalating game of one-upmanship between competing Hollywood studios and special effects departments.
While the digital wizardry improves slightly from film to film, the colossal, climactic fight sequences are essentially the same.
As mentioned, movies like these abide by a very strict set of rules. They are formula films, and that is both good and bad.
The good news is that audiences can count on the fact that they will see what they came to see. The bad news is the pitfall of predictability and boring repetitiousness.
When I was working on my doctorate at Temple University, my first published paper was on the subject of formula films and the James Bond franchise in the 1960s ('James Bond and America in the Sixties: An Investigation of the Formula Film in Popular Culture').
In it, I argued that those very successful early Bond movies were essentially the same basic story repeated and retold over and over again. The story structure and plot details were remarkably similar.
It raised the question of why audiences would return again and again to see the same story told in the same manner with the same plot twists and story elements. But they did.
Audiences, it seemed, wanted reassurance that they would see the same mix of “guns, girls, and gadgets” that made the 007 movies so successful.
The same could be said of the superhero and Monsterverse movies, following the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
They have identified what their fan base wants to see and they consistently serve it up with only minor variations. From a business standpoint, you can’t argue with the logic. From a creative standpoint, it’s a stifling, restrictive quagmire.
From my perspective, the only really interesting movies in this genre are the ones with the courage to break out of the ironclad mold.
I was a big fan of Ant-Man (2015), which brilliantly shifted the scale of the action from mammoth to miniscule. Likewise, Deadpool (2016) shifted the hero character from squeaky clean role model to a foul-mouthed, anti-hero who was flawed but likeable.
I know that Godzilla vs. King Kong will make a lot of money. Fanboys and Fangirls won’t mind the formula treatment.
Yes, there is a surprise twist introduction of a character not shown in the trailers that does take the movie in an unexpected direction, but even that leads to the inescapable city-smashing rampage that we’ve seen dozens of times before.
Besides being a formula film, Godzilla vs. King Kong is yet another recycled film made of borrowed spare parts from movies like: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), E.T. (1982), Titanic (1997), The Truman Show (1998) and Thor (2011) just to name a few. The references are easy to spot.
I’m guessing that the classic monster fans will love the classic look of these two beloved behemoths.
Godzilla looks very much the way he did when he made his debut in the 1950s, which is to say that he retains the shape and look of a monster played by a guy in a rubber reptile suit.
Granted, his appearance and movement are improved thanks to digital tweaks and motion capture technology, but he still bears a strong resemblance to his retro, rubber suit days.
Kong looks remarkably like the 13-inch tall, articulated ape doll that Willis O'Brien created for the ground-breaking stop motion sequences that brought Kong to cinematic life back in the 1930s, culminating in his now-famous, 100 story fall from the top of the Empire State Building, which apparently happened in some alternate universe, unrelated to the one in Godzilla vs. King Kong in which he is somehow alive and well and in perfect, youthful health.
Like Godzilla, his digital make-over is menacing.
They are both still channeling their pent-up primal rage that has thrilled audiences for decades, appealing to that part of our primitive, collective psyche that draws us to witness stadium implosions, bridge detonations and demolition derbies.
Godzilla vs. Kong is in theaters and on HBO Max.