Recently, I’ve heard the phrase “pandemic fatigue” come up in terms of people getting antsy about returning to “normal.” I don’t know how long we have left to go (though Ars has plenty of articles on the topic), but I can say that even through my vigilance about safety and health, my own patience sometimes gets seriously tested—especially whenever a hint of normalcy flashes before my eyes.
One example is watching a bombastic movie that gets me so amped up, it makes me finally dream of going to a movie theater again. And I’m absolutely shocked to admit that the film to test my patience the most in the past 12 months might very well be Godzilla vs. Kong, out today in theaters and on HBO Max. (Seriously, I am stunned to say this, after what I said about the last official Godzilla film.)
As much as I enjoyed this film from the comfort of my living room, displayed on a nice television with a subwoofer cranked to near-max, its two hours had me craving a more collective, crowd-filled experience—perhaps more so than any film or TV series I’ve seen since the last time I was in theaters. This film is a lot like its titular beasts: big, splashy, and sometimes quite dumb on the surface, yet full of animal-like cunning and able to land massive blows at crucial moments.
If you have a safe way to go to a movie theater during this film’s theatrical run, I cannot emphasize enough how rollicking and satisfying this film is as a return to the stadium seating of yesteryear—but if HBO Max is your safest or most comfortable option, try to watch this adrenaline-filled monument to kajiu greatness with at least one friend.
Plot: Two monsters, one grudge match, the end
GvK gets off to a great start by wasting no time establishing the plot. Kong exists. Godzilla exists. Both are big and scary. Both are currently under some form of human control and understanding, albeit barely. And both seem agitated by some sort of mysterious presence on Earth. That’s it. Wham, bam, thank you, Mothra.
This setup (which has a bit more substance, but barely) whizzes by without wasting our time, and it establishes a few central characters. Most of these are cookie-cutter lead characters with designs on doing the right thing in terms of this film’s unraveling monster mystery. The nicest thing I can say about them is that they don’t waste time establishing likability, heart, and earnestness. They’re mostly typical B-movie leads, and their job is to either be terrified by monsters, or to set the stage for a child who establishes a special bond with Kong. They do both well enough.
The best human actors include Brian Tyree Henry (If Beale Street Could Talk), who plays a conspiracy-obsessed podcast host with a lead on the film’s mystery, and Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who is dragged into the film’s insanity because he’s best friends with a lead character (played in surprisingly wooden fashion by Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown). Both of these actors steal nearly every scene they’re in, but they’re the film’s comic relief. GvK could have used at least one charming lead or hero—which we got in modern kaiju stunners like Colossal and Rampage.
Yet GvK somehow gets away with this lapse. One reason is because the comic relief really is that good, but more importantly, this script walks a really fine line between seriousness, heart, and outright cheese. There’s no real point at which the film’s logic is offensively bad—even if it’s often proudly paper-thin. Breaking into a disaster site full of the highest levels of corporate malfeasance? Just lick a screwdriver and jam it into the right plug. What about when a pre-teen girl sneaks past the highest-grade military security, meant to keep an eye on the murderous Kong, to go up to him and check on his feelings? GvK constantly waves its hand at these moments, since they whiz by so quickly, as if to say, “don’t worry about that plot hole, poindexter.”
Conversely, 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters spent much more time trying to convince us of its stupid plot, via stiff dialogue and acting, and far less having fun and moving things along. GvK appears to have taken those criticisms to heart.
Every pixel is spent wisely
Really, this film does a much better job appreciating that we’re here to watch big, scary beasts scream and punch, yet it’s also clever about establishing momentum between its biggest spectacles. As viewers, we spend more time with Kong than Godzilla, as the ape is part of a human campaign to save the world from a seemingly off-the-rails Godzilla. His bond with the film’s pre-teen is a touching plot morsel that never overstays its welcome—in part because Kong’s journey is always fraught with some kind of organic tension. Is he going to freak out? Break his chains and hurt someone? The film does well to establish believable, will-he-snap tension when he’s around, which means even when monsters aren’t fighting, KvG isn’t plagued by boring, “downtime” moments.
Similarly, a few dramatic scenery changes, particularly one at the film’s halfway mark, do well to keep the film moving without feeling like it’s slow or boring between the biggest monster-battle set pieces.
But of course, you’re here for the titular monsters, and in fantastic news, every pixel pumped into the film’s leading monsters is spent wisely. Whichever VFX house got this gig did a masterful job rendering the hairy, emotionally uncaged Kong within lush scenery—and taking special care to mind how a scene’s shadows and ambient occlusion dance all over his shaggy, unkempt frame. The same goes for the other monster in the film’s title, and I’m afraid I cannot say more than that for those of you who haven’t had certain bits of the plot spoiled already. Other CGI monsters don’t fare quite as well, which isn’t a dealbreaker by any stretch, but when one of the leads stomps past or destroys something else, the contrast in quality is hard to miss.
GvK also takes special care to ground the monsters, and their environs, in what appear to be practical effects and real-life sets. It’s really a digital art triumph all the way around. I loved long, lingering pauses over Godzilla as its steaming breath appeared to hover over a plasticky costume, and I loved how collisions with buildings made them fall apart in slightly cheesy ways—all while the monsters themselves slammed and shoved with considerable, impressive weight.
Subtlety is not this film’s forte
I appreciated the film’s cheesy foreshadowing moments worth cheering for, like when Kong decides to yank something out of the ground, at which point the audience sees this and screams, “I cannot wait for him to use that thing later.” GvK has zero interest in subtly cluing viewers into what wild or stupid nonsense will soon follow, and its serviceable cast and nimble pacing do wonders to keep us hanging on.
The payoff comes in the form of a 12-minute, multi-stage fight, and you may recall that I only liked the 5-minute closing battle in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. It was such a satisfying, thudding, weight-and-destruction romp between Kong and a generic terror-lizard that I have spent the past four years hoping this film’s version would top it. It sure does—and not just in runtime.
Purists will love how GvK repurposes classic kaiju shot angles for pivotal moments. Cinephiles will appreciate that the filmmakers ultimately err on the side of steady footage over jump cuts–even if the camera-angle swaps are still a little jumpy for my tastes. And CGI critics will meet their match in a handsomely rendered city of destruction, whose deep blacks, vibrant neon accents, and stunning vistas will likely make this a test sequence for 4K and HDR televisions for years to come. Kong and Godzilla absolutely slam the crap out of each other through the course of this film, and they cap the whole thing off with a brawl that’s not necessarily as epic as the They Live fistfight, but it sure comes close—and adds widescale, city-trashing havoc to the proceedings.
Landing on the proper side of stupid
Sadly, Warner Bros.’ movie-preview service wasn’t up to the task, in terms of too much compression-based artifacting and zero HDR tone-mapping, so I am hopeful HBO Max’s servers can withstand the brunt of thousands of film geeks piling onto this film simultaneously starting today. Me, I might just wait until vaccination and an ironclad mask can make it easier for me to watch this again in theaters.
At home, of course, I have the luxury of skipping to the most bombastic moments and reliving the scenes that legitimately made me shout, “oh $#!*” in my first viewing. But what really leaves me impressed is how this filmmaking crew stitched just enough humorous banter and awe-inspiring scenery together to keep me engrossed for a full two-hour runtime. Citizen Kane, this ain’t, but you’ve seen me nitpick painfully stupid films in my past reviews. Whichever screenwriter or script doctor cobbled this final script together knew what they were doing, as far as honoring the genre’s silly-yet-passionate legacy.
You’ll laugh, you’ll groan, and you’ll root for at least one titan-sized beast’s utterly destructive rampages. GvK is a surprising kaiju-showdown success that somehow lives up to the title’s insane premise, so much so that it washes out the bad taste of Kong: Skull Island. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll really, really wish a crowd of like-minded moviegoers was nearby to lose its monkey marbles with you.
Listing image by Warner Bros.