Gorilla in a Lizard’s Skin: Wingard Writhes in Franchise Fashion
As far as franchise cinema goes, we’ve long surpassed the need to apply any but the most basic expectations as regards intention in favor of mindless entertainment. Whether or not Godzilla vs. Kong will curry any favor rests on audiences who prize the inherent nostalgia porn stimulation in continual resurrections of these creature features, or younger generations who are satisfied merely with state-of-the-art technological spectacle.
Demanding any attention to characterization, enjoyable narrative segues, or anything beyond the promise of bombastic battle sequences between the mythical beasts may result in one’s dismissal as being ‘nitpicky’ or ‘pretentious.’ These are commodities meant purely for ‘fun.’ So perhaps one’s reverence for Adam Wingard’s ascension into this atomic lizard/behemoth ape franchise monster mash will be determined by how one has ‘fun’ with their cinema. Abandon all hope, ye who read further—honest opinions are divulged.
Five years have passed since Godzilla defeated the titan Ghidorah in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). We last saw King Kong left to his own devices in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, but now he’s watched over by Monarch in a contained dome due to the instability of Skull Island’s climate. They are the last two titans on earth. But when Godzilla suddenly attacks a facility manned by the Apex Cybernetics corporation in Pensacola, presumably unprovoked, a chain reaction is set in motion.
The head of Apex, Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) hires disgraced scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) based on his “Hollow Earth” theory, which asserts these titans live in a secret underground world, and their entry into ours requires a considerable amount of energy (which Simmons wants to harness to correct the improper power sourcing of his new Mechagodzilla, a mechanical version of Godzilla which can be manned remotely by a human). Lind teams with scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), whose adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) is the last surviving member of the indigenous populace of Skull Island. Jia is deaf and has taught Kong how to communicate via sign language. Lind and Andrews believe Kong will lead them to Hollow Earth, and they’re joined by Walter’s daughter Maya (Eiza Gonzalez). Meanwhile, conspiracy theorist Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) teams with Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her buddy Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) to investigate what’s really going on at Apex, only to find themselves transported to Hong Kong, along the way discovering some insidious secrets about Simmons. Eventually, all parties converge to witness an epic battle between the titans.
Yes, there’s certainly a space (and arguably, a need) for bid budget extravaganza entertainment, calibrated to transport its audiences to a magical realm of make believe and fantasy. It’s the desire we all have as we sit down to consume any narrative, written or otherwise—the promise of excitement, the thrill of being transported. But there’s a component missing from mainstream cinema designed for mass consumption—we’ve grown dangerously accustomed to accepting as fact such items are impervious to critique, and worse, misinterpreting ‘escapism’ as something required to be ‘mindless.’
One never forgets the magic of experiencing the wonders of storytelling, the stirring of creative furor, an epiphany inspired by craftsmanship—but like the perennial superhero franchises, Godzilla and company have been absorbed into the same kingdom where superficial visual magic belies an empty void. Sure, there are aficionados of this property and every franchise, those who are perhaps obsessed with every detail. But how much will the casual observer actually retain in their mind’s eye of Godzilla vs. Kong? More troubling is how a socially acceptable apathy dictates we shouldn’t care.
The overly complex plotting of Godzilla vs. Kong initially serves as a distraction, until the revelations wax derivative. This is Robocop meets Pacific Rim, themselves big budget spectacles which also included, at least as best they respectively could, their human components. The scientists penned by Max Borenstein and Eric Pearson are merely conduits of exposition, explaining what’s literally happening as actions unfold because they aren’t clear enough on their own. This leaves Skarsgård and Hall looking uncomfortably adrift. Still, they’re preferred to the caricatures demanded of the remaining cast members. The usually terrific Brian Tyree Henry is forced to engage as a manic conspiracy theorist bogged down with teenage co-stars Millie Bobby Brown (like Kyle Chandler, who has not one thing to do, a holdover from the last entry) and Julian Dennison (much toned down from previous turns in Deadpool 2 and Hunt for the Wilderpeople). Bichir is a dapper megalomaniac (shades of Pedro Pascal from Wonder Woman 1984 here), and poor Eiza González grates as his nasty, selfish daughter who at least gets a karmic boomerang.
On a positive note, the special effects are superb, and there are some glimmers of interest lodged in several battles between the titular monsters, while a final stampede in Hong Kong makes the metropolis look like a neon lit nightclub (and there’s, of course, no concern for the hundreds of city dwellers who would have perished in this crushing onslaught). But the input of Adam Wingard, who began as an indie horror director (Pop Skull; A Horrible Way to Die; You’re Next), and directed one of the best features of 2014 with The Guest, is nowhere to be seen.
Like the crushing disappointment of his 2016 Blair Witch or 2017’s Death Note, Wingard’s idiosyncrasies are wholly absent (much like the stamp of Michael Doughtery in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Gareth Edwards in the 2014 Godzilla, or Jordan Vogt-Roberts in Kong: Skull Island). Studio formula has cemented our acceptance in automatically regarding these types of films as ‘exceptions’ to criticism, furthered by the fuel of their access to adolescents and families—the notion of cinema designed for everyone, so watered down they have nothing to say about anything except the most basic of human frailties while continually championing cultural constructs upholding the incessant need of heteronormativity and the will of the heteropatriarchy. But we are not infants gurgling in bassinets captivated by the shapes and colors of a dangling mobile. We can expect more from mainstream cinema, and we should be wary of those afraid to authentically criticize how we’re spoon-fed ideas about what franchises should be—or how stories should be told. Godzilla vs. Kong is fast food cinema, and if we can all agree empty calories are toxic for the body, then the same can be said for mindless entertainment on brains which aren’t supposed to be shut off, but rather, energized.