Godzilla vs. Kong ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

GvK barely qualifies as tolerable, much less good, until the (second act) first fight between the titular characters, when Kong is revealed as the huge under-, uh, monkey, with only one friend left in the world (who is a tiny deaf child). With that, it picks up weird emotional stakes, and I genuinely can’t tell if it is intentional that any or all of the human action can not even approximate Kong’s plight, but it’s tough not to love that monkey. Even later, as non-simian protagonists keep getting involved in various shenanigans, the action that registers is Kong’s constant cleverness in fighting Godzilla and trying to stay out of the way of his ray beam.

These latest American Godzilla movies have, so far (and I’ve only been able to watch about 20 minutes of each one) been profoundly misguided in their attempt to contextualize environmental tales as disaster flicks. The tragedy of Gojira is not that we feel bad for the creature, but that the lizard is doing something beyond human comprehension. Applying labels such as “rational” or “mean” or anything is intrinsically a failed idea. Is Godzilla angry? Possibly. Bored is also a possibility, though. This reflects the unknowable nature of (American) humanity’s damage to various global karmas (for lack of a better word). Godzilla’s unknowability is what makes him (or her) most terrifying. Are there a million of them? Is this all our fault? (yes!). The grim truths of the matter are that a) there’s never a doubt that humanity will survive or win over whatever we’ve done to the Earth, but b) it is impossible to guess the collateral damage, and that damage is largely random in nature. It may be that your number is up when Godzilla comes to town. It may not. That, also, is impossible to know.

The kaiju idea, though, is the opposite of the Hollywood disaster movie in which the entire point is that the heroes know exactly what is happening and have to work to undo it. If in the kaiju movie, it is the chaos of the monster that drives the films, it is the industry of humanity that drives disaster movies. It’s the difference between Buddhism and Calvinism, and it is impossible to find more incompatible ideas. And yet Hollywood keeps trying to jam those together.

Kong, on the other hand, is a much easier concept for standard storytelling tropes to work with. It’s a universal truth that men are idiots and constantly overestimate their own abilities; sometimes all it takes is a big monkey (or whale[1]) to teach the edifying lesson about that.

Even more so, as time has gone on, audiences have grown to respect and empathize with the Kong. He’s more human than 90% of people in movies because unlike action film stars or even comedians, he just wants to be left the fuck alone. Is there a person alive who doesn’t empathize with that?

The challenge, then, for the screenwriters is to find a way to make Godzilla, the character, as compelling a character as Kong, even though Godzilla is chaos personified, and Kong is like a dad who needs to assert himself occasionally, but otherwise doesn’t want to be bothered. So, effectively, it cheats. It uses the Kong idea of man’s hubris to create a villain of the appropriate size, and then has that villain just beat the crap out of both of the good guys. Which means they need to team up and blah blah blah. But after spending 90 minutes or so not caring if Godzilla lives or dies, the captioning said, and I swear this is a direct quote: [Godzilla whimpers] and it is such a low blow for us animal lovers, because a whimper means an injured animal. And a person must go rescue whatever is making that sound. It’s less Pavlovian than it is primordial. The level of villainy that needs to be established to overcome a whimper is absurdly high[2], and it’s certainly not one this movie cleared for me. I was very “Hell YEAH!” when Kong subsequently saves the big lizard even after Godzilla had killed him earlier in the movie. And the movie rides that wave all the way to the credits. It’s insanely effective, in spite of being a cheap tactic.

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[1] Spielberg movies are a weird twist on this; in that they choose much uglier creatures to teach humanity a lesson. There’s a cruelty at the heart of his films that prevents us from sympathizing too much with the “enemies”.

[2] It is a testament to Quentin Tarantino’s skill as a filmmaker that the audience wants to see Kurt Russell abused long after he cries in agony in Death Proof.

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