As I mentioned a couple Friday Flotsams ago, I got out to see Godzilla vs. Kong: first time back in a theater for a long time. I have to delve into full spoilers in order to discuss my thoughts, so fair warning now. If you haven’t seen it an have any interest in doing so, I’ll just say that I liked it a lot, despite it being utterly ridiculous and abounding in stupidity. I am also very glad I got to see it without any (or many) spoilers, for reasons that will become apparent.
That out of the way:
The plot is that some years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla suddenly begins making raids on coastal cities, targeting facilities of the ‘Apex’ corporation: a cybernetics company. With Godzilla seemingly turning hostile, public opinion swerves against him.
Meanwhile, Skull Island has become completely consumed by the surrounding storm, rendering it uninhabitable and wiping out most of the native life, including the people except for one little girl (I have to say: having been irritated by the utopian colonial-penance figures in Kong: Skull Island I was rather darkly amused to learn they had all been killed off by natural forces). Kong himself is kept alive inside an enormous containment dome that preserves part of the jungle, though he’s growing restless and has become too large for the environment to sustain him.
(This film takes its predecessor’s trend of creating absurdly enormous and expensive devices and cranks it up beyond infinity, by the way. Who the heck approve funding for the miles-wide biodome with holographic technology to preserve the giant ape on an isolated, extremely hostile island? “Well, we can either give every American a complete income tax refund for the next few years or keep the giant gorilla alive.” “Let’s do that one”).
Kong’s chief researcher recognizes that Kong can’t survive here, but fears that if they try to move him it will provoke Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another Alpha kaiju in his territory.
Through some manipulation by the Apex corporation (which has its own agenda), an apparent old flame of hers convinces her to bring Kong to Antarctica, where there’s an entrance to the hollow earth (there’s some ridiculous nonsense about ‘bio-memories’ where creatures naturally want to return to where their species originated. I mean, even by the goofy standards of the science in the Monsterverse, that’s another level. Though, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t work in the event).
In any case, Kong is sedated, loaded onto a barge, and shipped to Antarctica, putting him on a collision course with an already-angered Godzilla.
Meanwhile, Maddy Russell from King of the Monsters, accompanied by her loser friend and a goofy conspiracy-theorist has taken up the investigation of Apex, convinced that Godzilla must have a reason for what he does and determined to prove it.
So, the film is utterly ridiculous, even for a kaiju flick (and to be honest, I prefer them to be more restrained than this: the Heisei films of the 90s are about the sweet spot for me when it comes to tone).
Now, to me the most important thing about this film was that the monsters would be played with respect and, well, frankly, how they ended the fight. And I’m please to say that in both cases I thought the film passed with flying colors (Godzilla is still a little too heroic for my tastes, but he’s otherwise pretty perfectly in character).
The battles give full scope to both monsters’ power and capabilities (well, Godzilla has a harder time tagging Kong with his ray than he probably should, but you can see why that was necessary). Kong is agile and clever, using tools and tricks to his advantage, while Godzilla is overwhelmingly powerful and durable, with a potential trump card in his atomic ray. When they fight on the ocean, Godzilla thoroughly dominates due to being a semi-aquatic creature. When they fight in the city, Kong has more of an advantage due to the abundant cover and high-ground (Kong’s talent for climbing buildings is used to a frankly ridiculous extent here, as I’m highly skeptical these buildings could support his new weight. But again, it fits the tone of the film and it’s what we want to see). He also picks up an axe from the center of the earth that allows him to even the playing field a bit against Godzilla’s ray.
In short, the film allows its title bout to play out more or less according to the nature of the characters. Which is to say: Godzilla not only wins, but wins decisively, taking both rounds with Kong, while the best Kong can do is knock him down for a bit. To top everything off, Godzilla finishes the second bout in a manner that suggests he had actually been holding back for most of the film. Once he goes all-out, Godzilla utterly dominates Kong. Oh, Kong puts up a good fight, but at the end of the day Godzilla is simply a much more powerful being than he is and much credit to the filmmakers for being honest enough to see that a fight between them can really only end one way.
I also really like how the fight ends: Godzilla savagely mauls Kong, puts his foot on his chest, and roars in his face. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he could kill Kong easily in that moment. But then…he doesn’t. Whether out of respect or simply because he perceives that Kong is no longer a threat, Godzilla spares him and leaves him to live or die on his own. That’s a great touch, re-asserting the fundamental nobility and dignity of the Godzilla character and ending their battle on a satisfying note. Not to mention that it makes their subsequent alliance that much more believable.
(I can’t resist noting that this means that Godzilla shows more mercy and humanity than Batman. But that’s another story).
So, I found the film’s take on the titular match up to be, by and large, extremely satisfying. It actually reminded me of something like a full-length Death Battle episode, where the goal seems to be just to show off all that the respective combatants can do and how they stack up against each other. Again, things like Kong climbing on buildings (there’s a bit where he waits on top of a skyscraper to ambush Godzilla: posed just as he was in the original film), Godzilla using his nature as a sea monster to full advantage, Kong using crude weapons, trying to pull Godzilla’s jaws apart, and so on. There was really no effort whatever to make any of this realistic. The goal seems to have been to make it ‘what you would imagine’ the fight to be, the kind of cartoonish, comic-book style action suggested by the question “Who would win: King Kong or Godzilla?” (Freddy vs. Jason did something similar, though to a less extreme degree). It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.
As for the rest of the film…ah, mixed bag.
In the first place, I rather liked ‘Team Kong’: the researcher, her maybe-ex-boyfriend, and the little girl. The fact that the latter only speaks in sign language was a nice touch (the fact that Kong now speaks it is…well, interesting. Certainly not out of the question for the character). I especially appreciate that the boyfriend, though he gets sneered at for being nervous around Kong (and why? How is that in any way an unreasonable reaction?), he subsequently gets many opportunities to show his courage and be heroic, protecting the woman and child, and actually gets acknowledged and appreciated for it. Thank you movie for that!
‘Team Godzilla’, on the other hand, is mostly just annoying. We have the smart, on-the-ball teenage girl, her overweight nerdy male friend, and the goofy conspiracy theorist. Pretty standard contemporary dynamic. Why couldn’t we have the male friend be on a level with her? Why couldn’t the adult be actually mature and level-headed? Why couldn’t you have had some kind of balance of the three, or baring that, just drop one or more to make everyone heroic and useful (Team Kong had that courtesy), or at bare minimum, not annoying? To be fair, nerdy friend does get to save the day in the end with a moment of inspiration, but gets no appreciation or growth from it. Kyle Chandler’s character is likewise completely wasted in the ‘not now, kiddo’ role. Why not have father and daughter both working on the problem and dump conspiracy theorist and loser friend? That way we’d have an actual, you know, relationship on our hands.
Also, the Apex facilities have ridiculously incompetent security, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
The human villains aren’t much to write home about either. Evil corporate guy has a plan to eliminate and replace Godzilla, his haughty ‘corporate chick’ daughter serves as the heavy on Team Kong while being ridiculously stupid at several points, and then there’s the henchman / pilot. The latter is inexplicably named ‘Ren Serizawa’, suggesting a connection with Ken Watanabe’s character of the past films. This never effects anything or even comes up, making me wonder why they bothered.
It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that Apex is making Mechagodzilla. But there is a bit of a twist: they’re using one of King Ghidorah’s heads as the control basis so that they can piggy-back off of his telepathy.
Now I love this idea: blending two of Godzilla’s biggest and most important opponents and giving his archnemesis another shot at him to close out the trilogy. In fact, I like the idea so much that I wish they had given Mechagodzilla his own film to fully explore the implications. I mean, a man is mentally linked up with King Ghidorah: there is a tremendous amount of stuff you can do with that idea (as a matter of fact, this idea seems to have been drawn from one of Marc Ceresini’s novels, which did explore the implications. In the book the pilot of Mecha-Ghidorah was a teenage girl, who becomes increasingly twisted by her contact with the King of Terror. At one point her guardian recounts coming home to find her eating a bird she’d killed. As I say, this is an idea that you really need time to explore).
This also reminds me of how much I wish they had dropped the stupid ‘Orca’ device from the previous film and just brought back the telepathy angle of the Heisei films. They could have made the Millie-Bobby Brown character this series’ version of Miki Saegusa. That would have covered about five or six plot holes right there. But I digress.
Anyway, though I wish the Mechagodzilla stuff had been given more time, what they have is pretty good, giving full-scope to his overwhelming power even with his limited screentime. We get the traditional beam-lock with Godzilla, as well as several new weapons, like a drill-tipped tail. I can’t say I care for the new design that much, however: it’s too busy and lacks the cold, smooth, metallic look of previous incarnations that stood out so well against its living counterpart. I also wish that Godzilla had been allowed to participate more in finishing him off, but I suppose they wanted to throw Kong a bone after losing the title fight. It also works given that it was Kong’s persistence that left Godzilla too worn-out to properly challenge Mechagodzilla in the first place, making it something of a penitential act on Kong’s part to finish the job.
The ‘energy source’ plot was great in concept: of course for something like Mechagodzilla the biggest problem would be finding a way to power him (in the 1992 film they specified that they were using a nuclear reactor). Employing Kong to find a secret source of power is also directly taken from the plot of King Kong Escapes, which is all kinds of awesome (I should say that the filmmakers include many homages and nods to classic Toho; they clearly did their research). However, when they actually find it, they sort of…email the energy? Huh? I get they wanted to move things along, but they should have bitten the bullet and just had someone ferry it back to the surface (it would have meant differing corporate chick’s comeuppance, but then they could have gotten it without her being suicidally stupid).
Speaking of which, the additions to Kong’s character were…interesting. At the very least, they show a willingness on the part of the filmmakers to get creative and to try to add something to such a venerable figure. The trip to the hollow earth was a glorious piece of pulp sci-fi nonsense, a chance to go creatively crazy with landscapes above and below and a shifting gravity field, as well as, of course, your standard horrible monsters for Kong to fight (flying snake things: certainly an appropriate denizen for the center of the earth).
On that note, the movie takes a kind of ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to creativity, drawing from classic Toho films, pulp adventures, previous Kong films, and others for a hodgepodge of sci-fi ideas. We have giant monsters, giant robots, telepathic aliens, a globe-spanning underground fast-delivery system, a prehistoric world at the center of the earth, conspiracies, gravitational anomalies, and on and on. I love the freedom and exuberance that the filmmakers show in just throwing all this stuff at the screen.
That said, I’m not sure about the suggestion of a Kong culture that once existed in the center of the Earth, or of an actual war between Kongs and Godzillas (frankly, I don’t particularly like the idea of Godzilla being a species in the first place: he ought to be a unique or almost unique being, mutated out of whatever genus he had once occupied into what he is now. Again, the Heisei films gave what I thought was the best origin story for him). It seems a little too much. Though the bit where Kong takes his seat on a giant throne, an actual king at last, was pretty cool.
Godzilla being able to blast down in the center of the Earth with his ray was frankly the most ridiculously stupid thing in the film. Actually, my main complaint about his portrayal here is that he uses his ray way too much and for too long at a stretch: a one point he keeps it going for minutes on end while trying to tag Kong. That kind of undermines it as a weapon, and I think he should have a pretty clear limit on how long he can fire it for, so that when he does use it for an extended period, it’s more impactful for the fact that he’s clearly making a special effort (e.g. when he shoots the meteor at the end of Godzilla: Final Wars). They over do his plates lighting up as well: I don’t really like him using it as a threat display. I prefer to know that once they start to glow, it means the ray is coming. But that’s more a problem from the previous film.
Again, though, I was overall very satisfied. The most important thing wasn’t necessarily that the plot was well-thought out or that the monster’s abilities were perfectly portrayed. It was that the characters were treated with respect and allowed to be themselves. And they pretty much nailed that: Godzilla and Kong are both the dangerous, noble, ferocious kings they ought to be. Their dynamic, with Godzilla being the unstoppable, world-defying juggernaut tasked with battling existential threats and Kong the scrappy, defiant, but ultimately out-classed independent party just seeking a place to survive, was perfect.
That is really the chief difference between them, thematically: Kong is about nature being conquered by man. For all his power, he ultimately can’t compete with human civilization and so falls. Here, in a more modern twist, man is alternately trying to preserve and protect Kong and exploit him for their own ends. In any case, Kong is ultimately vulnerable to man. Godzilla, on the other hand, is nature that cannot be conquered: he is the consequence of that supposed conquest. As Boethius put it, anything that escapes from the order assigned to it only falls back into a different order. If man disrupts the order of nature, a more fundamental order, one that he cannot disrupt, is called into play. Godzilla is the embodiment of this deeper nature: the unexpected, disastrous, and uncontrollable consequences of disruption.
So, thematically, you could put it that when man kills Kong, he creates Godzilla (which is sort of what happened with the original films, as Godzilla was partly inspired by King Kong).
Of course, this is another reason the fight can only end one way. For all his power, Kong is fundamentally vulnerable to man. Godzilla isn’t. The question facing the humans in one case is ‘what do we do with Kong?’ whereas in the other it’s ‘can we do anything against Godzilla?’ This is what makes each one interesting, and also what dictates the outcome of their encounter.
In any case, I really enjoyed Godzilla vs. Kong. It was a completely insane, ridiculous, and delightful romp with some of my all-time favorite characters, and for once the filmmakers actually paid what felt like genuine respect to the classics that came before them rather than adopting a faux-superior stance. It could have been a lot better (e.g. fixing the ‘team Godzilla’ storyline), but its high points are so immensely satisfying that I don’t really mind too much. I think that, for all their flaws, I will be glad to have the entire Legendary trilogy on my DVD shelf as a tribute to my most beloved film franchise of them all.