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Monster Mush

It’s a fine line between laughing with a movie and laughing at it. Watch the latest monster-fight film, and you’ll find yourself doing both.

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Sometimes an actor has a look in their eyes that says “this movie is ridiculous, and I am dead inside.” Sometimes, we can’t blame them for it. While we may never know for sure what Rebecca Hall was thinking during the filming of Godzilla vs. Kong, there are moments when it seems like she must’ve been thinking about literally anything other than what’s going on in the movie around her. If the mark of a great B-movie performance is the ability to seem relaxed and in on the gag—like, say, John C. Reilly in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, who probably deserved a Oscar nomination for this line about giant ants—then a sign of a weaker B-movie, even one made with an A-list cast and A-plus budget, is that it leaves its actors stranded for (or as) punch lines.

It’s a fine line between laughing with a movie and laughing at it. Roland Emmerich mastered this calculus 25 years ago with Independence Day, which still stands as the dubious, modern gold standard for check-your-brains-at-the-door blockbuster filmmaking (better, definitely, than the director’s subsequent stab at Godzilla). Reviewing ID4 in 1996, Kent Jones called it “the cinematic equivalent of a Barcalounger,” which, among other things, hinted that the experience of watching it was not as relaxing as you’d imagine. It’s possible to have a good time at these kinds of movies, provided you meet them on their own terms. The problem comes when those terms feel less like an invitation than an ultimatum. Check your brains at the door—or else.

It’s difficult to reconcile the parts of Godzilla vs. Kong that are focused on “smart” humor—like the subplot featuring Brian Tyree Henry as a paranoid podcaster—with the overall sense of it being a blockbuster on autopilot. Incoherence isn’t necessarily a deal breaker in franchise filmmaking—if anything, we could use more of it, which is why the Snyder Cut rode a groundswell. But laziness is a deal breaker, and in Godzilla vs. Kong, it’s often legitimately difficult to tell the difference between laziness and incoherence.

Hall plays Dr. Ilene Andrews, a researcher who specializes in giant-primate behavior. We learn that she’s been studying Kong on his home base of Skull Island for 10 years, recalling the setup for 1968’s awesome Destroy All Monsters, which found Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and the gang reduced to guinea pigs before breaking loose for a climactic Royal Rumble that may be the best sequence in any Godzilla movie ever. In interviews, Hall has likened Ilene to the famed naturalist Jane Goodall, which is why it’s extremely funny—on purpose? By accident? Who knows?—when the doctor’s adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), an adorable Skull islander who is hearing-impaired and has formed a bond with the big guy, informs her that Kong knows American Sign Language. “I’ve been trying to communicate with him for years,” sighs Ilene ruefully, having apparently never thought to try a method that has been famously successful with regular-sized gorillas.

Ilene is out to lunch, but she’s also there to remind the other characters of what’s going on at all times; the dialogue in Godzilla vs. Kong is often the equivalent of described video. “Godzilla is hurting people and we don’t know why,” Hall says, during one of the many times she furrows her brow to dump a heap of exposition all over the audience.

This is the kind of movie in which it takes brilliant, top-of-their-field scientists a very long time to figure out why Godzilla—whose whole deal always has been hurting people—is hurting people. It’s also the kind of movie where a former orphan girl is there to smile beatifically at Kong when he’s feeling sad and to inspire him to get up off the canvas, Rocky-style. Which he does several times, because compared to his co-headliner, he’s an underdog. Considering that both 2014’s Godzilla and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters imagined their namesake as an indestructible, quasi-Lovecraftian destroyer of worlds, what chance does an oversized, temperamental silverback really have?

“Nobody cry when Jaws die,” said producer Dino De Laurentiis in Time magazine in 1976, describing his new remake of King Kong. “But when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” De Laurentiis was always his own best hype man (and he was spoofed on Saturday Night Live by John Belushi, the King Kong of 1970s comedians), but he was right about Kong’s status as one of cinema’s all-time-great tearjerkers. Few characters are more irresistibly flawed or more metaphorically potent: Both Quentin Tarantino and Denzel Washington can testify to that. If the original 1933 version of King Kong is still the best, it’s because it tempers the story’s inherent sentimentality with a legitimately nightmarish, borderline-surrealist sense of violence and irrepressible rage. If Peter Jackson’s 2005 labor-of-love update fails, it’s because the director just can’t bring himself to lower the boom, waiting three hours before letting beauty kill the beast. At any rate, score one for Godzilla vs. Kong for recognizing and emphasizing the tension between the latter’s humble, mammalian relatability and his rival’s reptile-brained evil; the difference between these two characters can be boiled down to how difficult it is to imagine a movie being made from Godzilla’s point of view.

The other big idea in Godzilla vs. Kong is that Big Tech is bad. Demián Bichir’s Muskian crypto-billionaire Walter Simmons has taken it upon himself, Lex Luthor–style, to solve Earth’s “Titan Problem” and is hiding the solution in a subterranean facility 30 stories beneath the streets of Hong Kong. In a wittier movie, this technophobic subtext about how progress becomes its own kind of trap could have manifested as a commentary on how Kong and Godzilla’s transformation into CGI creations undermines their legacies, rather than honors them. (2016’s Japanese-language Shin Godzilla is a much wittier riff on ancient intellectual property that doesn’t sacrifice action for satire, or vice versa. It focuses on civic middle managers and politicians contending with the consequences of a kaiju attack on Tokyo, and uses a sitcom concept to deftly get at the cultural significance and specificity of a monster who began as an emblem of his homeland’s post-Hiroshima anxieties.)

The smartest aspect of Godzilla vs. Kong is how it maneuvers its star attractions into a potential tag-team combination à la the golden-era WWF juggernaut the Mega Powers (though sadly there is no equivalent to the Savage-Hogan handshake). Before that, however, there’s a lot of tortuous, over-explicit exposition, much of it delivered by Alexander Skarsgard as a disgraced scientist named Nathan Lind who’s been peddling a Hollow Earth theory in books that nobody’s buying. He believes that Kong and Godzilla are exiles from the center of the planet, and—here’s where he started to lose me—if scientists use Kong to lure Godzilla back into this primal realm, they’ll defuse the threat the latter poses to the planet. This involves transporting Kong around by sea, where he’s ambushed by Godzilla, and then by air to a secret base in Antarctica. He awakens in subzero temperatures and looks around at his surroundings and sighs like a guy who wishes that he was anywhere else. It’s the best character beat in the movie.

Godzilla vs. Kong is written by Marvel hand Eric Pearson and MonsterVerse architect Max Borenstein, neither of whom seems to have taxed himself unduly. It’s directed by Adam Wingard, at one time tapped as the future of American genre cinema; the title of his 2011 breakthrough, You’re Next—a terse, funny, super-gory thriller about crossbow-wielding home invaders—doubled as a summation of his emergent potential. 2014’s The Guest, starring Dan Stevens as a sociopathic veteran menacing a suburban family, was even better.

In retrospect, though, what Wingard was actually next in line for was the kind of upward industry mobility that turns promising, idiosyncratic independent filmmakers into franchise caretakers. Whatever you think of Wingard’s Blair Witch and Death Note, they are movies that he evidently wanted to make. If Godzilla vs. Kong betrays any signs of directorial personality, it’s the bored distraction of a guy who suspects he should be having more fun on the job than he is. Even the movie’s overtly goofier moments feel mandatory.

What’s missing is the fleeting but genuine awe that Gareth Edwards conjured up in Godzilla, the kind of imagery that can momentarily justify an obscenely inflated budget. Godzilla vs. Kong has only a couple of worthy money shots, like Kong landing a pretty good uppercut while standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, which carries the primal joy of a kid smashing her action figures together; this is also probably the first monster-fight movie in which one of the monsters pops in its separated shoulder. More generally, though, it features a lot of swift, relentless, and ultimately weightless carnage that never achieves true stylization, not even when shot against a neon Hong Kong backdrop.

It’s just tricky to try to make something look convincingly state-of-the-art and gloriously cheesy at the same time. When the Beastie Boys made their brilliant, Toho-inspired video for “Intergalactic,” they recognized this impossibility and leaned into it—just like the makers of Crank 2, who turned Jason Statham into a kaiju and ended up with a miniature classic of hyperbolic, lo-fi action. These sly, less-is-more parodies are memorable; after checking your brains at the door for Godzilla vs. Kong, it unfortunately doesn’t give as much in return.