18 April 2021

First Impressions: Godzilla vs. KONG

 Here we go, folks - one of my most anticipated films of the year and it did not disappoint! It disappointed a little, but we'll get into that. Godzilla vs. KONG (2021) exists in such a weird context in every possible way, but we'll discuss that as well and dive into the biggest film of the year so far! SPOILERS for any Godzilla-loving fan out there, so be warned, feable populace.

Smashy smashy!

I am a Godzilla fan. Have been one since I was a little kid. I can tell you the difference between Kumonga and Kamacuras and eat up pretty much everything TOHO spits out. This mentality colors my reaction to these new films quite a bit. I am not a purist or anything, I think the Godzilla mythos can evolve and change, although there are some ridiculously bad interpretations, both recently (and out of Japan), and the more famous American 1998 version (that did, however, lead to a pretty good cartoon show). When dealing with Godzilla, you also always have to remember that the series has always been corny and campy and the best films have a nice dose of both the serious destruction as well as the lampshaded nature of how bonkers the whole premise of giant fire breathing lizards are.

The Legendary Studios' Monsterverse, kicked off in 2014, has had more good entries than bad, with each subsequent film arguably getting better than the one before it. Each subsequent film has also gotten much much crazier. Godzilla (2014) is mostly the world's reaction to a giant creature re-appearing today, and it is safe to say now that all the JAWS (1975) parallels were pretty misguided and the whole thing is pretty boring until the ending fight, which is still top notch. Then KONG: Skull Island (2017) got its due to introduce a giant ape, and it ratcheted up insane set pieces, monster fights, and presents a pretty fun movie with a renowned but game cast. I have gushed quite a bit over King of the Monsters (2019), which to me was a perfect representation of the campy fights from the Showa Era with the budget and backing of a major studio blockbuster.

Slowly, though, this universe has introduced more and more sci-fi elements which have just exploded by the time we get to Godzilla vs. KONG. In Godzilla (2014) we maybe had barely nuclear capabilities. In GvK we are traveling to the center of the earth inside anti-gravity spaceships. It's maybe not wackier than the giant submarine base and airship from KotM, but there is a heightened campiness on display that is either fun or world-breaking, depending on your viewpoint. I am all about it. I love unexplained giant bases and corporations that fund insanely complicated enterprises that bend reality. The film wisely doesn't get hung up on this logic, and if you've already entered the Godzilla vs. KONG door, you shouldn't either.

The film certainly takes some liberties with its premise. KONG is now in an enclosure - who the hell knows how they set that thing up. It's not outright said that Godzilla has murdered all the other Titans from KotM, I would be saddened to hear that, but it seems as if he does require all other Titans to bow to him, something that KONG would never do. So Rebecca Hall, who I only just realized now has not been in a great movie in a very long time, has tried to keep him hidden away.

Meanwhile, Godzilla is seemingly attacking human settlements unprovoked, but clearly these humans are up to no good and challenging his supremacy. It is a little weird that this movie is primarily driven by conflicts over pride - Godzilla basically just wants to continuously decimate any potential rival. But really, isn't that the basis of most human conflict? Almost as if the biggest monster...is ourselves.

The film wisely paints Godzilla as the antagonist half of this titular brawl. Not only is KONG more relatable from just an ape to human sense, but he's the clear underdog here. Godzilla is bigger, tougher, and has one of the most potent weapons in cinema in his atomic breath. The film does a great job of letting us into KONG's mentality, which is basically a desire to just sit around and eat bananas, but also a homesick loneliness for his long lost kind. He's also visibly older, not just bigger, but greyer, with a big beard. We get not one, not two, but three major Godzilla vs. KONG fights, which is fantastic. It's rare that a film billed as a crossover match-up actually delivers on satisfying goods, and this does so very well.

Godzilla is a terrifying enemy. The first fight is also completely on his turf, in open water as the scientists sail KONG away to try to find the center of the earth. Godzilla effortlessly dismisses the human navy and beats the hell out of KONG, who does get some fun platforming in, but you really do feel how the odds are stacked against him. Again, there's no real reason for their conflict besides Godzilla just being sort of a dick who can't share, but we can't get hung up on complexity here, it's just not that kind of movie. And again, there are so many human conflicts that get caught up in the same kind of non-logic. Like...all of them.

It really is such a perfect match-up though. Apes and alligators are natural enemies, from Donkey Kong and K. Rool to King Kong and those pesky dinosaurs. Okay, so both these examples were Kongs, but my point holds up. Even us humans, as primates naturally fear and fight the reptiles of the earth. Godzilla does seem very gator-ish in this, with an unusually high amount of biting and crawling.

The human story is so bad and uninteresting, but I might say not nearly at KotM levels or Godzilla (2014). The film also wisely splits them up into a KONG half and Godzilla half. The KONG half features Rebecca Hall, Alex Starsgard, and a young deaf native girl trying to reunite KONG with his ancestral homeland so that they may siphon ancient mystical life force power into a human-made Supremacy module. Not every character knows that at all times, but it's enough to push this story forward and they don't get bogged down in their petty garbage too much.

On the Godzilla side, though, Brian Tyree Henry's conspiracy theorist comes off a little played out - I kept thinking of Woody Harrelson in 2012 (2009). Also in an age where conspiracy theories are widely believed and disseminated, I'd like a film to not indulge big conspiracies as true. Millie Bobby Brown is also there, she doesn't really do much and is a rare continuation of the same character from one film to the next in this series. I have no idea why the Monsterverse has been so reticent to retain characters, but I kind of like it. We're here for the monsters, not the people. Including Kyle Chandler who is I guess leading Monarch, now? And Lance Reddick who, oof, way to get into the opening credits and then appear for one line in one scene.

We can complain about this all day, but get real, the human characters in Godzilla films are always, always, ALWAYS hot garbage. It is a shame. I don't know why giant monsters fighting each other can't carry a film. That story arc of a centuries-long battle for Titan supremacy is interesting and it's what we're here for. I can't say enough how bad this plays out in the Godzilla Earth Anime Trilogy. I really tried to give those movies a chance because the themes at work seemed really interesting, but crap, those humans are insufferable and indistinguishable.

It isn't the greatest excuse to say that it's okay that this film grinds to a halt every time we go back to the Godzilla humans and their conspiracy meetings because that's the case with every Kaiju movie and its humans. It'd be nice to have at least one movie with interesting humans. I guess I'm still partial to KotM's Bradley Whitford and Ken Watanabe. Not so much Charles Dance and Vera Farmiga, whose motivations just didn't resonate well. I feel like good humans are possible. Maybe not, because they can't really fight or take interest away from the giant monsters. Unless you give Mark Wahlberg an Alien Sword! It's all right there.

KONG eventually meets up with Godzilla in Hong Kong, and despite Pacific Rim (2013) seemingly cornering the market on rainy, neon Hong Kong fights, it proves ample ground for another marquee match-up. There are a lot of great moments. Godzilla uses his atomic breath to burn a hole through the earth's crust. KONG finds an axe that he swings like THOR. It's all sorts of fun. And impressively, the movie actually gives us a winner - Godzilla pretty much puts the smack down on KONG and proves he's the dominant species. BUT....that's not all that this movie has in store for us...

So, the fictional company APEX is trying to use secret planet Titan life force to power its own man-made dominant predator....Mechagodzilla! I did get a little spoiler, but I was pumped to see Mechagodzilla here. And somehow the transition from title fight to team-up fight isn't as contrived as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), who also paused to fight a giant grey villain at the end. If only we had a Lady Godzilla join the fray! Then the movie would be complete.

I am a big Mechagodzilla fan, the Showa version was such a sinister capper to the era, and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1974) remains my favourite film of that run. It was always run by the Black Hole Aliens, though, and lacked a real personality or even antagonism of its own against Godzilla. Super Mechagodzilla and Kiryu were human creations to try to combat Godzilla, and I hate to say that this modern design does not beat Kiryu in pure coolness. The GvK Mechagodzilla (what do we call this? Mechagodzilla 4? Please exclude Ready Player One [2018]) combines some of these ideas. In Terror of Mechagodzilla the robot was piloted by a human brain (the daughter of a humanity-hating scientist, whose life the aliens saved through cybernetics, it's...um....it's complicated). In Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2003), Kiryu is built around the 1954 Godzilla's skeleton, whose soul periodically comes back to life and takes over. It's never as bad as GvK and is ultimately a weird plot point in the two films it starts in without much consequence.

In one of the many bits of mangled continuity that makes no sense, here Mechagodzilla 4 is built around one of two King Ghidorah heads, the other being the basis for a telepathic link-up and piloted by a Japanese guy who never speaks (okay - it was Serizawa?! As in THAT Serizawa's son? This is literally never mentioned in the film!). It feels only slightly Pacific Rim-y (2013), but is actually a creative use of something never really explored previously, but how the hell do the three Ghidorah heads work. From there we get a little Megatron taking over Galvatron action a la Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), where Ghidorah starts running the show and destroys its creators. Yeah, maybe a little Frankenstein in there, too.

It works well as narrative shorthand. Godzilla recognizes his mechanical counterpart as both a threat as an APEX predator and the remains of Ghidorah. They fight, and Mechagodzilla kicks his ass, although he was pretty weakened from the fight with KONG. It reminded me of an age old tale where both combatants are too busy fighting each other to realize that they need their full strength to beat their REAL enemy. Teamwork. These movies have messages.

KONG is able to swing the axe, powered by Godzilla's fire breath, with lethal precision, dicing his way through Mechagodzilla and eventually chopping its head off. I don't know what it is with this series and lopping heads off. Godzilla did it to the MUTO in his first movie, they do it do Ghidorah, and again here. They also seem to like the idea of opening mouths to pour in fire breath. I suppose with relatively resistant outer skins the easy way to defeat a Titan is to burn them from the inside out. Mechagodzilla maybe goes down a little too easy, especially considering how fast it dispatched Godzilla. I'd also like to get a better look at it - I'm just a fan and felt like we never got to sit down and take in its glory or really see it be a huge evil dick, but as a last minute inclusion and way of bringing back Godzilla and KONG together, that wasn't going to happen.

Yeah, there's a bit of begrudging respect at the end. Godzilla could still annihilate KONG, but doesn't out of respect for KONG taking down the Mecha. It's actually a decent arc, and one that I appreciated. It was nice, and honestly rare, to have both a definitive winner and a satisfying ending to this hyped up mega-match.

My mind wanders to the other "great" mega-match marquee films. Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Alien vs. Predator (2004). Batman v. Superman. And of course, the original King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), which sorry, folks, is truly terrible. I hate that I actually like a lot of these. Godzilla vs KONG might be at the top, though. That isn't actually high praise, but this film was pretty good, pretty fun, and a great Friday night at home.

That's right - let's dig into that one! This did get a theatrical release, which has gotten some people back to the theater, but not enough quite yet to justify many studios confidently arranging their release schedules. The big nod, though, was HBOMax, where it was the most widely watched movie in that platform's short history. We are certainly at an odd crossroads right now. On the one hand we simply have all these leftover massive films stacking up from pandemic delays that studios will eventually burn off one way or another. It's hard to exactly see the economic impact from shuttering towards streaming. I can say that I am at least appreciative - this is undoubtedly the kind of movie built for the big screen, but I am perfectly happy not driving somewhere, paying a ton of money for drinks and snacks, being able to pause whenever I need a restroom break, or interacting with any human being at all. It's all bliss and I'll give HBOMax all the money in the world to release all their movies on this platform for all of 2022 and beyond.

The future of the Monsterverse is also up in the air. In the post-Avengers (2012) world every studio wanted their own shared universe, and it is once again an impressive statement to say that the best one is this scrappy little Legendary Kaiju corner. It really even beats the DCEU by a good margin. What's the worst movie? Godzilla (2014)? That's not bad at all, folks. It has never really lit up the box office, although it's certainly finding a cultural moment to shine right now with a dearth of other big shared cinematic experiences to talk about.

I'm in a weird spot - I would love to see more of these films, especially developing other Kaiju and giving them the big screen modern mega-budget treatment. We've gotten to see quite a bit by now, but I'd be into developing some kind of Monster Island (this seemed like it would be Skull Island for a while, a notion not really dismissed until this film made that clear). One of the biggest things I left KotM wanting to see more of is each Titan, their backstory and how they interact. It's weird but one thing I really loved about the Showa era, and even Heisei films like Godzila vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) was how Godzilla seemed to hang out with his buddies, Rodan, Mothra, and Anguirus.

The movies so far have burned through his more famous archenemies, but I'd still be into two big bads he has left - Space Godzilla and Destoroyah, the latter of which was foreshadowed with the mention of the Oxygen Destroyer in KotM. Although that could have also just been a reference to the 1954 Godzilla, which itself was referenced in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995). There's a lot of places it can go, and one of the most fun ways might just be being content to throw up a few Monsters of the Week like Megalon and Gigan into the mix. It does feel weird since these movies are such events. It's a little different when they take so long to produce and need to feel so epic when they're out. It's not like rubber costumes in the 60s that TOHO just cranked out with low budgets. I'm not sure how this scale could ever do small character-driven breaks like Marvel does with Ant-Man & the Wasp (2018) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) in between its giant epics.

Or maybe it's done. It sure felt that way after King of the Monsters. Its box office wasn't really there, and no one seemed to care. Godzilla vs. KONG definitely doesn't have the money to back it up, but that's not its fault. This is really going to come down to whether or not Warner Brothers wants to milk more out of this IP with more obscure or possibly new characters in a post-pandemic world or put it to rest. There's no telling.

Godzilla vs. KONG was really fun, it's a nice cure for COVID shut-in blues right now, and quite honestly, just great to see a big new escapist action film again. Obviously this was made pre-COVID but I'm curious if it is building a trend of absolutely un-realistic action adventure blockbusters that take us away from our horrible lives, and in many ways a complete reversal of the grounded, serious, grimdark action adventure we had for most of the last 15 years or so. Time will tell.

Go watch it! It's free, who cares.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails