Before 2014’s Godzilla, the Americans had a bad track record when translating the King of the Monsters for Western audiences. This process began with abysmal re-edits of the first three Godzilla movies: butchering the original products, diluting their impact and adding terrible extra footage (interestingly, this included a re-cut of the original King Kong vs. Godzilla). This same process was attempted with the 80s Japanese reboot, becoming the soulless Godzilla 1985 in the States, and then America ruining Godzilla reached its nadir with their first original instalment: the dire Roland Emmerich Godzilla from 1998.
The idea behind these films was to take them away from their source, to move away from a feel and a sensibility that foolish producers thought was at odds with American sensibilities. However, despite their attempts to destroy Godzilla, the enduring popularity of this kaiju led to a dramatic rethink: a series of films that feel like American blockbusters while also trying to capture the feel of the hugely popular Japanese Godzilla films.
The 2014 film uses the original Godzilla as its blueprint (as do many of the Japanese sequels), paying homage while giving a distinctive spin that is born out of a different filmic sensibility. 2019’s King of the Monsters instead drew from Destroy All Monsters or, fan favourite, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (a movie every bit as maximalist and glorious as its title). With Godzilla vs. Kong, we complete the classic kaiju trinity and tick off the versus movie.
A lot of the Godzilla versus movies are saved by glorious third act battles. Godzilla vs. Kong is one of these films. In that respect, it is a fitting tribute to its lineage. In reflection of this, though, there are nice nods throughout. The creation of a certain kaiju alludes to a plot point from the Heisei series (sadly not a nod to the reveal in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2 that Godzilla has a brain in his butt), and a scene of Kong on a boat (and a narrative beat of humans orchestrating this match-up for their own benefit) is a fitting nod to 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. So, while this film is not the most fitting tribute, and does not match the madcap brilliance of your classic versus, it does seem aware of its predecessors and deferent to them.
Again, this is best shown at the end. We have a large fight in a city full of smashing and crashing. The camera often gives us the classic Godzilla monster fight view, framing the action as a long shot in which kaiju stands before kaiju, ready to strike – a composition that calls back to the duels in Japanese samurai movies of the 50s and 60s. From this point we get kinetic and high octane action as monster smashes into monster or monster smashes through buildings.
The city scale (Hong Kong this time, and Hong Kong as a battlefield destroyed by external, oppressive forces certainly has a connotation in 2021 that, hopefully, was not intended in production) is used to give weight and impact to the fighters, and is well used in the combat. The effects are computer generated and lack the physical heft of the model work from classic Godzilla (or from the sublime 2016 Japanese reboot, Shin Godzilla). However, there is still a sense of awe and impact. The creatures move well and the flexibility of computer graphics allows them to do more complex manoeuvres. We also have the kind of pseudo wrestling moves you expect from classic Godzilla. Truly, the final fight is awesome. You know the stakes; you know who is against who; each kaiju operates in distinct ways and the fight choreography bends around their capabilities. This makes for an engaging action sequence and, thankfully, the direction and editing makes the action far more readable than the dreadful fights in King of the Monsters.
Though, there are issues around this. The action scenes are over edited, which may have been necessitated by direction and shooting, and are framed like human scale encounters. The usage of reaction shots and quick cuts is film shorthand for energy and violence. This helps with human on human combat but saps some of the weight out of a giant monster melee. The film too often disrupts an action with a cut to a different perspective – one egregious example being a monster throwing a fighter jet at another, a great idea ruined by a cut to the perspective of the pilot mid throw, and then a cut to a different perspective on impact. This breaks up the action awkwardly and dilutes the impact; what should have been a clear shot of something being thrown, a really cool thing being thrown, becomes garbled and overly frenetic. At many points, the film just needs to let its monsters do the talking and instead resorts to stylisation and flair – which ultimately takes centre stage over the films actual strengths.
But this is the film in general: there’s a terrific core (ironic for a film about a hollow Earth – don’t ask) and the movie never really works out how to highlight it. It instead focuses on extraneous detail. The 60s Kong vs. Godzilla kept things simple. Yes, it had a fun meta premise about advertising interests leading towards a forced crossover but, realistically, it’s just a quick way to get a monster hitting another monster.
Here, we have multiple plot lines and motivations. This would be fine, but they are at odds with the film’s scope. As alluded to with the editing, this aims to be a tight and flashy movie. The pace is quick and the overall product should be pretty lean. Yet, we have multiple storylines orbiting around the central conflict. The tight pacing means all of them feel unnecessary. Moments burst into other moments in a way that feels like scenes are missing in between; we hop from location to location – and from story point to completely different story point – at an alarming pace.
Every human plot line, and there are several, feels under baked and like half of it is on the cutting room floor. The film is sprinting through its narrative, coming in at under two hours (which is nice), but still wants to throw in everything. The result is that nothing really sticks. By the time the film’s core focus is clear you realise it would have been aided by a cleaner focus on it from the start – and that all the B-plots were unnecessary. The film brings its strands together so quickly, and in so contrived a manner, having separate strands to begin with feels pointless.
Even more annoyingly, these strands hold the film’s key faults. Each has points of eyebrow raising representation – further heightened by how the rough characterisation leaves each human as a caricature. And, we also continue the weird conservative bent of the previous film. There’s less mansplaining in this one, but the weird plot line about the real villains being environmentalists – a bizarre right wing wet dream – has been replaced with the real heroes being conspiracy theorists. Here, a major plot point hangs on the fact that one of our characters is an ostracised conspiracy nut who was, you guessed it, right all among. And this is exactly the kind of narrative we do not need in general, but especially not right now.
In general, this is a film where a myriad of small flaws feed on its large strengths. The conspiracy plot line is annoying, to say the least, but it leads to a sublime visual moment. The whole plot line necessitates itself, and could be worked around, but it also facilitators one of the coolest sequences in the film. We see this time and time again, where every strength is dogged by some unfortunate element. And it all comes down to the juxtaposing feeling of a baggy but linear film. If you got rid of elements, rather than sanding them down, this would be a better film. As it stands, it is a film that uses Godzilla rarely and – for the first two parts – very poorly. Yet, instead of making good on the monster who gets first billing in the title (a misleading title change from the Showa movie, this is a Kong film that features Godzilla), they focus on blockbuster elements that drag it down.
So, we end where we started. The forced character arcs stuffed with laboured comic relief dialogue and clunky references to modern day things that people do (which feel instantly dated – there’s a joke about eating tide pods, that’s how dated this is) feel so American blockbuster. This melding of Japanese monster movie and American blockbuster film sensibilities is better than in the past, but it still fits awkwardly. You’ll have fun here, even if every human performance is bad (which ultimately comes down to direction), because when it starts to emulate a Japanese monster movie it is just an expensive and shiny one of those. And those are great. Yet again though, it’s another case for leaving Japan’s most famous monster to the Japanese.