A couple of nights ago I saw “Godzilla vs. Kong” alone in my darkened living room. That was far from ideal, but it made me acutely nostalgic for a certain pleasure that I have been giving up for 13 months. There are many reasons I miss going to the movies, but one of them that I didn’t really take into account is the extra joy of seeing a bad movie on a big screen.
I don’t mean bad “bad”. It is more of a description than a judgment. “Godzilla vs. Kong,” directed by Adam Wingard, is the fourth episode in a franchise called “MonsterVerse,” which was made from fossilized B-movie DNA. As such, it gathers an impressive human cast to walk around explaining false science and drawing attention to what is happening in all clarity. “Did the monkey just talk?” someone asks. He kind of did it, but that’s not what anyone can see here. We paid money to see him fight the lizard.
Well I didn’t, but if things were different I might have done it. Mind you, not necessarily as part of a monthly HBO Max subscription fee. (The film grossed $ 123 million in overseas cinemas this past weekend.) The spectacle of the Titans playing Mano for Mano should be watched in the presence of troubled members of your own species whose behavior leads you to think about the ridiculous parts of moaning. laugh too hard at the used jokes and cheer when the monkey fist connects with the dinosaur jaw.
Without such a society it is at least possible to admire “Godzilla vs. Kong” for what it is – an action film that was shot with lavish grandiosity, without pretension and not too much originality. An opening sequence points in the direction of earlier MonsterVerse episodes (“Godzilla”, “Kong: Skull Island” and “Godzilla King of the Monsters”) and at the same time picks up on the energy drink rhythm of the playoff sports broadcast. Myths and legends are cited along with genetics and geophysics, but bracketology is the relevant intellectual discipline.
And the main aesthetic achievements are the kaiju and the monkey. They fight at sea and on the streets of Hong Kong, and their bodies are depicted in loving, absurd detail. Kong’s height seems to fluctuate a bit, like he’s a boxer floating between weight classes. His fingernails are beautiful, his teeth are straight and his coat is impressively well-groomed.
The film, written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, might lean a little in Kong’s favor. He has a sweet friendship with a young girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottle), whose guardian is Ilene Andrews, a sensitive scientist played by Rebecca Hall. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is less sensitive and is ethically compromised by his involvement with Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), a bigwig from companies who embraces technological ambitions in a brocade tuxedo jacket and a mug of scotch.
You know the guy. You may also know the underdogs who take up Godzilla’s side of the story: the paranoid podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry); the nervous nerd (Julian Dennison); the independent teenage girl (Millie Bobby Brown). Brown was in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, as was Kyle Chandler, who plays her father again, the fearful bureaucrat. This film and the other earlier MonsterVerse pictures cared a little more about people than this one, which reduces motifs and relationships to visual shorthand and indifferent jokes.
The poetry, as I suggested, lies with the animals. Kong, a warm-blooded being, is the more passionate and moody of the two. He also learns to communicate with people and to use tools or at least a glowing ax that he finds in a cave deep below the surface of the earth. (The earth is hollow, in case you didn’t know.) Godzilla is simpler, but also more enigmatic – a killer with a small brain whose scaly face still registers an almost philosophical fatigue and an instinctive willingness to fight.
What would you bet on I will not spoil anything. Despite the bright blue death rays shooting out of Godzilla’s mouth, it’s an old-fashioned Donnybrook, a brawl that feels more physical than digital. Kong has broad shoulders and the ability to make a fist, but Godzilla has claws, a low center of gravity, and a sledgehammer tail.
It’s not pretty and it doesn’t mean much, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” turns its limits into virtues and makes stupidity its own kind of ingenuity. The original “Gojira” was an allegory of human ruthlessness, just as the old “King Kong” was a tragedy catalyzed by human cruelty. It was pop fables, something that this chic spectacle is not remotely aiming at. But it at least honors the nobility of the blanks on the screen as it satisfies the appetite of the blanks on the couch.
Godzilla versus Kong
Rated PG-13. Big animal chaos. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max Please consult the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before viewing films in theaters.