The Screen Scene: Godzilla v. Kong

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

As the weather gets warmer, the arthouse films fade away and tentpole blockbusters take center stage. One of the strangest cultural effects of COVID was the disappearance of the popcorn action movie in 2020. Theaters closed, and production companies refused to release a film on a streaming outlet that might make a billion dollars on the silver screen if they simply postponed the release
date.

This year the annual blockbuster season arrives early with the release of Godzilla v. Kong. To stop the financial bleeding, Warner Brothers struck a deal with HBO Max to release Warner’s entire 2021 slate of films in theaters and on the streaming service simultaneously. You can brave the crowded multiplexes to see the film in IMAX or crash out on your sofa and watch it in the comfort of your own home (until it leaves HBO Max on April 29th).

A fringe scientist believes the Earth is hollow and an entire ecosystem of plants and creatures lives in its core. An eccentric billionaire agrees with him and offers to bankroll an expedition to prove the theory. Additionally, they believe that King Kong hails from this hollow world and will have a built-in radar for getting home. It’ll be a simple, high-tech game of Follow the Leader.

Meanwhile, Godzilla is wreaking havoc in the world. He no longer appears to be an ally to humankind. He wants a showdown with King Kong. (There’s a whole convoluted mythology behind their rivalry that I won’t attempt to untangle here.) If Godzilla will also follow Kong to the hollow world, their final battle can take place away from civilization.

Final battle? Dream on. This is high-dollar intellectual property we’re playing with here. So one thing is certain: the IP must survive to make a profit another day. It’s not a spoiler to say this title battle must end in some form of a tie after a bunch of digital mayhem and destruction. Warner Brothers isn’t going to kill the golden goose (or the golden monkey and lizard in this case).

When I was a kid watching Godzilla movies or Ultraman re-runs on WTBS, I’d long for greater realism. Men in rubber suits trampling cardboard cities were fun. Occasionally a pretend power line would go down and set the buildings ablaze. But, the action was still missing scale, a sense of awe.

In the 21st century, CGI has replaced men in rubber suits, but the sense of awe is still missing. Godzilla v. Kong offers a few jaw-dropping shots, but most of the time, it looks like animated creatures against an animated background, causing animated mass destruction. The big confrontation we’ve all been waiting for feels like a ten-minute session on a PS 5. It’s weightless and airy like so much digital smoke.

The schools of thought on this film have staked out two extremes. Critics focus on its ridiculous plot and lack of any real character development. In the other camp, you have the fans of the film defending its general lack of intelligence saying: “What do you expect? It’s just a monster movie.” So both schools of thought agree that his film is brainless. They simply disagree about whether its
brainlessness is entertaining.

I disagree with both camps. Why can’t a blockbuster have a brain? They used to. Think of the films that started this entire trend: Jaws, the original Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. The characters, the humor, and the clever plotting were why they became blockbusters. As CGI became more and more advanced, the spectacle has become the heart of the film, and the phrase mindless
action movie was born.

When you see a convoluted mess like Godzilla v. Kong, you can almost hear the writers say, “That’s good enough. This isn’t Shakespeare.” While that’s true, it’s hard to believe that FIVE writers couldn’t come up with a better story. The bottom line is simple: they know the IP is the true star of the film. Put Godzilla and King Kong on the screen, and it’s enough to sell tickets (or HBO Max subscriptions).

I haven’t mentioned any actors by name because the performances are of little note. Everyone does what’s expected of them which isn’t much. The human characters just spout jargon like “gravitational inversion” while briefly trying to set-up what’s going to happen next.

I’m a big fan of director Adam Wingard from his previous films You’re Next and The Guest. Necessity is the mother of invention, and lower budgets turn Wingard into an impressive inventor. His style is stamped all over those films. In Godzilla v. Kong, Wingard is just another cog in the IP machine. I wish him personal success, but I also wish he would come back to making brilliant smaller scale thrillers.

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