Are Monster Movies Good Again?
I spent the vast majority of 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong thinking about another battle going on in my mind: the war between the desire to see intelligent, nuanced, resonant movies that change me and the world at large, and the desire to see big apes punch big lizards in the face for my momentary amusement. I wouldn’t say that it’s an even fight. When even the shallowest intelligent movies hit, they hit hard, like Avengers: Infinity War or John Wick 3. Unfortunately, even the coolest action sequences don’t save a really stupid film: the forest fight isn’t enough to make Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen watchable, and Fant4stic isn’t made any better by Dr. Doom exploding heads. Have we finally gotten a film that breaks that trend and becomes good on its action alone? The answer is no, but Godzilla vs. Kong isn’t just another bad movie with some awesome action. It’s the king of bad movies with some awesome action.
This movie is absolutely insane. A good third of it is unbridled punch-ups and I loved every second. No cutting away and jumping to the end of the fight that occurred off-screen – you see it all. They kept the promise of its title and then went the extra mile, featuring memorable dust-ups with at least three more giant beasties. It looks incredible, it sounds spectacular, and it feels appropriately titanic. Director Adam Wingard, editor Josh Schaeffer, and the digital effects team did a masterful job cutting between chaotic close-ups and glorious wide shots. The action is inventive, varied, and occasionally shot with a bit of creative flair. As a viewer choosing to watch this film, I walked away completely satisfied that I’d been given what I paid for.
Is The Action Enough To Carry The Film?
The plot is completely incoherent and laughably irrelevant. Something about protecting Kong from Godzilla’s rampage, and an evil corporation orchestrating the whole thing. I couldn’t even attempt to describe the whole deal with Hollow Earth. You could jump right into this film without watching any of the previous ones and have exactly the same idea of what’s going on as if you had. I’d actually recommend that approach – apart from Kong: Skull Island and a few key scenes in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, there’s almost nothing on GvK‘s level there.
It definitely could have been cut down into a 45-minute dialogue-free film about big things fighting each other and I would have probably been happier. Human characters in a monster movie are like that U2 album that came free with iTunes you couldn’t delete. They’re not the worst they’ve ever been, but each and every one of them is irritating or pointless in their own way. All the dumb tropes are there, from the evil billionaire making a doomsday machine, to the well-meaning bland scientists, to the plucky team of children who save the day. Brian Tyree Henry actually tried and managed to get a few genuine laughs out of me which was truly magical. Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård and Millie Bobby Brown all tick their relevant boxes, but Julian Dennison and Eiza Gonzalez have absolutely no reason to be there. I understand why filmmakers see the need to have human protagonists, but if they’re dragging down what we actually came to see, then just cut them out.
Much of what made GvK enjoyable was clearly done by aping Pacific Rim (which itself is just a massive homage to earlier kaiju features). The neon-filled night-time showdown in Hong Kong is visually identical. The shift in focus to big, schlocky action is tonally similar. But I don’t actually see this as a bad thing – every western kaiju film that tried to cut out the unrealistic ended up being distinctly worse, so fully embracing the crazier elements is something I’ll wholeheartedly embrace. That being said I do miss some of the doom-filled grandiosity of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. As irritating as it was to glimpse the most epic sights imaginable only for them to be obscured by dust, darkness and buildings, nothing hit me in GvK quite as hard as Godzilla’s first roar at the airport.
What Have We Lost Along The Way?
As glorious as the action was, there was a sour taste left in my mouth by the end. For the near future at least this probably spells the death of monster-as-metaphor on the big screen. Godzilla and King Kong meant something once; they were effects-driven creature features, yes, but the metaphors for nuclear weapons and slavery were almost more powerful than the monsters themselves and baked into the concept of the characters. Subsequent adaptations moved further and further away from this, until Godzilla became a giant velociraptor in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla in 1998, and in 2017 Kong: Skull Island had Kong represent the Vietnamese now (I think?) mixing metaphors so much it becomes almost meaningless. Now they just exist for the sake of existing, and the only thing left for them to do is have dazzling dust-ups. When people go to see an epic monster film now, they’ll only be judging it on how cool the punches are, story and subtext be damned.
My question is, why can’t we have both? Can I have a gigantic monster movie that also makes me cry a little? To this I look to who else but Guillermo del Toro – we’ve seen that monsters can be the foundations of beautiful stories like 2017’s The Shape of Water, and the highlight of mindless popcorn flicks in 2013’s Pacific Rim. Guillermo, my guy, can you please make a monster movie that satisfies both the intellectual side and the animal side of my brain? If anyone can do it, you can.