‘Godzilla Vs. Kong’: Cool Sh*t Can’t Save Adam Wingard’s Convoluted Titans Clashing Monsterverse Movie [Review]

“Film isn’t about storytelling or empathy; it’s about cool shit happening,” is an amusing, facetious tweet that recently went viral. Sure, it’s a jokey, flippant sentiment, but there’s also a kernel of truth (and an ironic one at that) that also applies to Legendary Picture’s “Godzilla Vs. Kong.” Because the easy part of making a “Godzilla Vs. Kong” movie— at least, where getting most audiences to buy-in is concerned—is making “cool shit” action sequences and fights. The rest, as demonstrated by Legendary Pictures’ new Titans clashing movie, is really hard to pull off.

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To rewind, give Legendary Pictures credit: they have not been making superficial “cool shit” Monsterverse movies and have always aimed for stories that mix spectacle with legend and depth. “Godzilla” (2014) took a Nolan-esque approach to Gojira, not to mention featured a bold POV storytelling handoff and applied a “Jaws”-like aesthetic to the unseen monster, and subsequent films (“Kong: Skull Island” and “Godzilla: King Of The Monsters”) swung a little harder in the “cool shit” direction, but always kept the humans front and center in their stories.

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This speaks to the inherent paradox and degree of difficulty of making these movies: the latter is very high. In many cases, audiences do just want “cool shit” in Monsterverse movies (check on Twitter, even professionally paid critics will echo this sentiment), but Legendary and all its filmmakers have understood—just like the original Toho Godzilla movies that featured relevant political and social undertones—the humans in the story are always the audiences surrogate and their gateway to any kind of empathy with the creatures.

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So, including the Monarch legend and myth they’re always woven through these films, Legendary has actually gone to great lengths to create a meaningful world, universe, and characters around the “cool shit” of kaiju monsters beating the tar out of each other.

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Director Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla Vs. Kong” is the same in its good intentions of trying to balance the human, the inhuman, and the spectacle.  There are conspiracy and mystery afoot, there are human protectors, scientists, conspiracy theorists, arrogant billionaires masquerading as trailblazing innovators, notions about capitalism and greed, and yes, lots of epic, knock ‘em sock ‘em fights between Titans and other creatures. Yet, for all its efforts into story, character, and providing ample room for monster fisticuffs and visual grandeur, “Godzilla Vs. Kong” never really comes together in any potent way. It’s paradoxically a movie that’s almost too clever and convoluted for its own good with its two parallel storylines. And yet, the film is simplistic; it even going to ridiculous lengths to contrive a fairly outlandish story where Kong can get a superpowered ax that’s sole purpose seems to be an explainer for anyone wondering how a gigantic ape can convincingly face off against a monster that breathes and shoots atomic blast fire.

So, ‘GvK’ is two (arguably three) stories that converge. On one side, it’s current and former Monarch scientists (Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall) and a little, deaf native girl from Skull Island, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who has forged a special bond with Kong. They aim to keep Kong safe, but the ape is outgrowing the island, and the climate has destabilized. Worse, Godzilla has seemingly betrayed humanity and attacked an Apex Cybernetics scientific research base on the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Godzilla’s story is told by three humans prone to conspiracy theories: Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), an Apex technician who’s also secretly a podcasting whistleblower, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown, reprising her role from the last ‘Godzilla’ movie), galvanized by the theories in Hayes’ ramblings, and her skeptical sidekick (Julian Dennison). They believe that there are forces out there compelling Godzilla to “turn bad,” and his attacks are more complex than monster rampage.

Then there’s the tip of the triangle that connects all the stories together: Apex Cybernetics’ CEO, Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), an Elon Musk-like big tech visionary entrepreneur whose goal is to solve the Earth’s “Titan problem.” He convinces Dr. Nathan Lind (Skarsgård) to convince Dr. Ilene Andrews (Hall), Kong’s Jane Goodall character, to take Kong to Hollow Earth (the center of the planet) to look for new power sources that could solve all their problems (whatever that is, and most of it is mumbo jumbo). There’s also Maya Simmons (Eiza González), Walter’s haughty daughter, who acts as Apex liaison when the military attempts to sail and escort Kong on gigantic barges to the Hollow Earth entry point in Antarctica. The catch-22 is, they need to get to Hollow Earth (though the motivation here is weak and unconvincing), but taking him there, outside of the safety of Skull Island, alerts Godzilla to his presence, and Titans are competitive and don’t like other Titans on their Earth turf, got all that?

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of plot mechanics, thingamajigs, and excuses in play to make it so Godzilla and Kong can fight and fight they do. Ironically, this “cool sh*t” is good, the best parts of the movie. But all the stuff around them—and there is so much of it—just pushes and pulls away from having any investment or connection to any of the characters, creatures, or story. It’s just all an overly-elaborate scheme to get Kong and Godzilla going toe to toe (and believe me when I say I’ve tried to give you the Cliff Notes version of the basic story), and by the time they have their final face-off in Tokyo, things might look all visually cool and dynamic (with lots of destruction porn), but you don’t really care about any of it.

Not everything is a loss. Wingard does have a flair for scale and epic fight scenes, and his penchant for visual color panache and pulsing synthy musical taste is on display (some of it looks a little “Prometheus” at times). Additionally, the story element of the little girl connecting to Kong on a deeper level and how that gets the audience to empathize with Kong—the better character of the two, frankly—is a smart story decision, and it gets us more emotionally involved with Kong than these movies ever usually do. Also, just the recognition that Kong is the better character for audience identification shows that the filmmakers know what they’re doing. Still, for all these wise choices, “Godzilla Vs. Kong” never really connects or clicks, leaving us to enjoy what we can from a big loud, noisy melee. It’s “cool sh*t,” I guess, but it’s easily forgettable and disposable in the end.

TLDR—it’s essential to have characters and a good story around a ‘GvK’ movie because, without it, all your left with is an empty trailer of fight scenes. The irony is this overly involved story detracts from one’s engagement in the movie. Legends may finally collide in this installment, and it’s mildly entertaining in spots, but the whole endeavor is ultimately almost as hollow as the earth’s empty core. [C]