Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Godzilla vs. King Kong’ is a Vivid Royal Rumble

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Man, I wish I saw Godzilla vs. King Kong in theaters. A shiny, colorful, big dumb action movie made to be seen with a crowd of yelping yahoos if ever there was one. But even by myself on my dinky laptop, I couldn’t help but have a helluva good time.

Watching Adam Wingard’s installment of the MonsterVerse is a reminder of just how bleached and achromatic much of our big-budget blockbuster fare is. Heck, movies, in general have found themselves drifting more and more to muted and monotonous color schemes. 

Wingard takes what Michael Doughtery did in Godzilla: King of the Monsters and distills it down to the bare-knuckle essence of a bar room brawl. That it works at all and is so bright and vibrant in the process is a minor miracle. Godzilla vs. King Kong is a blast and hardly drags in the slightest.

Eric Pearson’s and Max Borenstein’s script is perhaps a little too overstuffed with characters. And unlike Doughtery, Wingard seems squeamish about killing anyone who isn’t a villain in one way or another. But in a way, it fits with Wingard’s and the script’s simplistic, bare-bones view of the kaiju world.

Based on the research of Dr. Illen Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who is working for Monarch, Kong and Godzilla are two Alpha Kaijus and thus are embroiled in an eons-long grudge match. Hall is studying Kong in a massive containment center, designed to look like the ape’s home Skull Island. The design also recalls the studio that housed the world of Truman Burbanks in The Truman Show.

Unlike Truman, Kong begins to suspect that his world isn’t as it seems. He’s even started tossing trees into the ceiling to disrupt the computer program and test the roof for weaknesses. The legacy of velociraptors is farther and broader than we could have ever dreamed of as children. 

Dr. Andrews isn’t alone. She has her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf islander from Skull Island that Andrew has adopted after her tribe was wiped out. Jia and Kong seem to have a special bond. Among other things, we learn that she has taught him sign language.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Godzilla has begun randomly attacking factories on land. The resident Godzilla expert Dr. Mark Russel (Kyle Chandler) and his daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) find this odd. Especially considering the radioactive lizard seems to be targeting buildings and compounds owned by Apex Cybernetics.

Apex happens to be where Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) works. Hayes also has a podcast where he extols conspiracy theories, some of which happen to be true. His biggest fan is Madison, who, with her best friend Josh (Julian Dennison), steals his brother’s car and goes in search of the mystery podcaster to help them solve the mystery of why Godzilla is behaving so strangely.

Henry is, as always, the best thing about any movie, even when the film isn’t all that good. He is one of the best actors working today, and his sputtering, nervous, fast-talking conspiracy nerd is a fun change of pace for him. My only complaint is the moment when Madison and Josh knock on his door. He answers by doing a horrible impression of an Asian man reminiscent of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s. It is played for laughs, but in the current climate of the rising anti-Asian sentiment, it feels cruel and petty in a way unbefitting of the film’s overall tone. It’s also just plain racist.

Wingard spins a lot of plates, and he does so without too much difficulty. The movie doesn’t feel like an average Hollywood kaiju movie. It has all the trappings with its monsters and crackpots but instead feels like the old-school Japanese versions. The whole film has the energy of a dime-store paperback but with child heroines. Usually, children in these types of roles would be irritating. But both Brown and Hottle do an excellent job of playing recognizable versions of kids their age.

Brown is the stubborn teenager who trusts no one except some rando she agrees with on the radio and refuses to bend to any authority. She is a teenager. Likewise, Hottle’s Jia is an adorable girl who understands what’s going on and the stakes involved, even if the adults don’t think she’s ready to know. 

Both actresses play their parts as needed. Hottle, in particular, was a breath of fresh air. If only because, as a half-deaf person myself, seeing deaf people in movies just because is a beautiful little touch that Wingard didn’t need to add.

Oh, and then there’s the Hollow Earth theory made famous by Jules Verne’s infamous “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) says it’s true, but only the mysterious CEO of Apex Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) will believe him. In a movie like Godzilla vs. King Kong, once someone mentions “the hollow earth theory” it’s a pretty safe bet that we are going to the center of the Earth, which we do.

Exactly what Apex Cybernetics is up to and why it’s driving Godzilla so mad can be seen a mile away, if you are even somewhat familiar with Kaiju movies. Granted, it is a twist that doesn’t pay off until the final fight scene in downtown Hong Kong. A scene in which Wingard and his cinematographer Ben Seresin shoot as if it’s a wrestling match inside of an 80’s pinball machine. It is a gorgeous bestial grudge match to behold, with neon lights outlining the buildings illuminating Godzilla and Kong so we can see the movement of the hairs and the texture of their scales.

The downside of Godzilla vs. King Kong is so full of people that it doesn’t know what to do with them. Characters such as the billionaire Simmons, his daughter Maia (Eiza Gonzalez), and Ren (Shun Oguri) Apex’s leading tech engineer are all well and good but feel shoved in solely to have a body count. Gonzalez, as usual, is note-perfect, but she is given little to do other than to snarl and look contemptuous, solidifying her bad guy credentials. 

Wingard and Seresin do a bang-up job of making sure the action scenes are clean. We know what’s happening and are never confused about where everyone is. The fights are framed, so we are given a full grasp of the rhythm and emotion of the battle.

For the most part, the textures of the monsters are so well rendered they give off an almost tactile quality. This is more true for Godzilla and Kong, not so much for the other creatures, great and small, that show up throughout the film. Wingard and his special effects team have worked to give both Kong and Godzilla distinct personalities, even in how they fight.

From time to time, they may go too far in this respect. At the beginning of the movie, we see Kong waking up for the day and going about his morning routine. Seresin’s camera hangs back as we see the mighty Kong walk towards the rising sun, groggily lumbering as he reaches behind and scratches his butt. It’s one of those decisions where I can’t decide if I love it or not; I think I do.

Wingard has given us a feast for the eyes of a mindless dumb blockbuster movie that has no business looking this good. Tom Holkenborg’s (Junkie XL) score might be one of his best. He doesn’t use any of the much-beloved original Godzilla theme music by Akira Ifukube, which was an element I sorely missed, but he does pay homage to it in subtle ways.

Holkenborg’s score is weirdly muted but not invisible. It adds heft and grandiosity to the scenes without being overbearing. His score is such that I preferred it to Wingard’s occasional needle drops of oldies such as “The Air I Breathe” by The Hollies. I didn’t hate them, but I found them distracting as he used them so sparingly that they felt out of place when they played.

Godzilla vs. King Kong is much simpler and, in a way, more primal of the monster movies so far. Yes, it has too much story and too many characters, but it works. It’s a movie about a young Kong trying to beat Godzilla’s scaly butt, and on that, it delivers with side helpings of titanic beat downs. I spent most of the film with a grin plastered on my face. It was a blast. 

Still, it’s a downright dirty shame that they didn’t use Mothra.

Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures

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