Monday, April 12, 2021

Jun Fukuda, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you


Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein, Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty, and Zach Shields

Spoiler alert: moderate

The consensus on Godzilla vs. Kong is that it's some of that much-needed fun, so I guess everybody else was sitting around on their Internets and in front of their TVs during the pandemic and pretending that that wasn't more-or-less what they'd be doing anyway, because I don't know if I've seen any movie benefit more from that particular category of low-expectations bigotry.  And I say this as a dyed-in-the-wool apologist for Warner Bros. and Legendary's take on the Toho monsters and their RKO-born American guest-star: GvK is trivially the worst movie in its whole series of modern CGI kaiju films, and while it is not therefore the worst of the forty-odd movies to feature either Godzilla or King Kong, that's a competitive battle indeed, and it's still handily in the bottom third of them, maybe bottom quarter.  (And not that "stupid" is remotely the same thing as "bad" when the subject is monster movies, it's worth mentioning that the only one of its forebears that I'm confident is stupider is Godzilla vs. Megalon, which was expressly made for actual toddlers.)

Yet the real anti-miracle of it is that it's so utterly incapable of communicating any of the sense of fun that usually attends even the lousiest and most threadbare kaiju film; it almost feels like it was designed to troll everybody who complained about how Godzilla movies aren't about humans (which is, in fairness, true!) so it doesn't matter if they made them as intentionally boring or irritating as possible while still making a Godzilla movie that runs nearly two hours, thus obliging a full feature's worth of footage to still be about these people, despite noticeable if not especially earnest efforts to better-structure these things as delivery devices for the CG monster battles that audiences claim to crave.  It remains the shortest "Monsterverse" movie anyway, but at 113 minutes, that means very little in relation to the vast majority of its poppy Japanese forebears.  It doesn't even mean all that much in relation to 2014's Godzilla or 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which still felt shorter.  And that's not to even speak of the last time we saw Kong, in 2017's Skull Island, which exploded with the kind of joy that this film, even at its best, can but hollowly simulate. 

GvK, due to its shared universe bona fides, is required to be a direct sequel to both King of the Monsters and Skull Island, and would evidently much rather be the sequel to the latter, which is a bit awkward considering Skull Island was set in the mid-1970s.  In the Skull Island sequel, the adolescent Kong we encountered there has now grown to adulthooda necessary shift, given the inordinate size of the Monterverse's Godzillaand has spent the past several years being studied by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), whose role is predominantly to explain to us in packets of exposition how Kong's status quo has changed, with his Skull Island having been refitted into a holodeck of itself (this almost makes sense in the movie) in order to hide him from Godzilla, whom we last saw forswearing violence against any fellow "Titan" who didn't challenge him after the other Titans caused about ten trillion dollars worth of infrastructural damage to the planet, so clearly this was money well-spent.  In the meantime, the indigenes of Skull Island have been whittled down to just one survivor, in the form of young Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf and mute child who nonetheless has established a bond with Kong as his last link to the culture that once worshipped him and, one supposes, as his only meaningful contact with a creature like himself, since he too is the sole survivor of a vanished family.  Unfortunately, GvK does not realize that separating Kong from a young girl who can't be left to die alone on an island is an actual story, one that would've served a Kong movie pretty well, even a Kong movie that needs its Kong to violently intersect with Godzilla.

In the KotM sequel, on the other hand, discredited crypto-geologist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is approached by tech billionaire Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir).  He sends Lind on a mission into the Skull Island sequelthis is, in fact, the last real overlap between the two for the whole rest of a very-oddly-structured filmthe idea being to use Kong as a pathfinder into the Hollow Earth that he and all the other monsters come from.  Meanwhile, in the KotM sequel proper, the Hollow Earth and Simmons's plans are likewise a concern of conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), who's spent years infiltrating Simmons's Apex Industries and, apparently, been live-tweeting about it the whole time, in order to get to the bottom of whatever unsavory plot Simmons intends to hatch upon the world.  After Bernie barely survives a Godzilla attack, and for reasons that, a couple of days later, I'm afraid I've forgotten (though this is what makes it the "KotM sequel"), his most faithful listener takes it upon herself to seek his counsel, evidently solely because Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) was in the last movie and somebody, somehow, believed this thread of continuity was vital to telling a story about King Kong and Godzilla.  And while the ultimate goal of Simmons's machinations has been treated like it was some kind of spoiler, it's almost the only thing that could happen in this movie that wouldn't be: so, the unsavory plot that Simmons intends to hatch upon the world? he's using Kong to acquire a power source for Mechagodzilla, his and Ren Serizawa's (Shun Ogori's) bid to reclaim human control over the Earth after the kaiju wrecked numerous human cities and killed several million people less than half a decade ago.  Unfortunately, GvK does not realize this makes them its heroes, which, shockingly, might mean that Godzilla vs. Megalon is not stupider.

GvK doesn't realize a lot of things, it turns out, but good God, does it just leave perfectly acceptable and in some cases honestly compelling ideas on the table in favor of the mess of Goddamn gobblydegook it would apparently prefer to be about.  For starters, the fact that Serizawa was supposed to be Godzilla and KotM's Serizawa's vengeful son is, I think, not even acknowledged onscreen in the final version of this reshot and recut filmthe pandemic delay has somewhat obscured the film's other delays, and the attendant studio tinkeringand leaving that out is just baffling, considering what was considered more worthwhile.  There's a Godzilla movie about something in Simmons and Serizawa, maybe just the evergreen arrogance of manbut that's something.  Instead GvK is content to dress Bichir like a vampire while making Serizawa an inscrutable technomage, and assume that we'll "get" that they're evil, so long as the movie excitedly gestures at their notional villainy by way of a character who uncomfortably combines the roles of "corporate whistleblower" and "Internet lunatic" (and even in the latter mode is too much Dale Gribble and not enough Lone Gunman), and, who, in the memey sprawl of his conspiracy web, is about ten seconds away at all times from just cutting to the chase and blaming Godzilla attacks on the Jews.  Even recognizing that the Monsterverse has always had a conspiratorial element, this was previously handled so much more enjoyably, in part because it gave you the feeling that you were being gifted with secret knowledge, and in part because in the first half of this franchise, it actually was dealing with arcane mysteries.  But at this point in this universe, taking recourse to a conspiracy theorist to investigate the truth about giant monsters who already wrecked the world just seems superfluous.

It's Qong!

If all this suggests that there might be at least some sort of personality painted onto these interactions, I've misled you terribly.  Bernie is a plug-n-play comic relief module rather than any sort of humanoid, a repetition of mostly the same exact joke over and over ("crazy people believe ____", without much if any particular elaboration), and even on this count he's repurposed to the same ends as the even-less-interesting characters in the other plots, which is to constantly tell you what happened in between movies and what's happening in this one, and the whole screenplay is like that, just constant instrumental yammering, with a good half of the script plausibly consisting of bracketed [tech tech] to be filled in later after looking up some sufficiently sciencey words.  Even that's in service of fairly ill-conceived ideas, particularly that "Hollow Earth," accessed by a deflatingly on-the-nose 2001 riff and which just turns out to be Skull Island again but (ooh!) on both sides of the sky, and apparently duller on the side we get to explore.  It almost has a radical idea about Kongfor a brief moment it almost looks like the poor giant ape could be just the feral lost child of a whole giant ape civilizationbut, inevitably, this would be so insanely off-brand that it can't commit to it beyond the vaguest possible implications, and it's probably for the best that they pumped the brakes anyway, considering that "inner world connected to Earth by wormholes" already comes off like a perverse compulsion to explain the "giant fucking monsters from underground" concept that was already perfectly adequately-explained in the radioactive food web presented in Godzilla 2014.  (The other, only-slightly-less-radical idea about Kong comes about through his connection to Jia, and while it's the obvious thing to do with a giant gorilla, it's also new, and could've easily been used for good ends.  But like everything else in this movie, it is baldly functional and nothing else, with Kong and Jia's "friendship" basically being a creature of the same endless exposition as everything else in this movie.)

Nothing in the film feels like any love went into itnot even the aesthetic, which, at best, tries to reconcile Godzilla and Skull Island and winds up with nothing.  The exception, maybe, is the giant monster fights, which is what they call burying the lede, since, to a pathological degree, GvK would like you to consider it as nothing but a vessel for these fights.  Thus it does wind up with a fair amount of actionthree big matches (plus a Godzilla attack and Kong slaughtering some Hollow Earth wildlife in a sideshow with a couple of spiffily-designed flying monsters, who still don't come off as anything close to threats)though it's not to the movie's credit that you'd probably have to squint very hard at a synopsis to see where these fights would fit into its plot, even though the plot is, explicitly, only an excuse to move one monster from point A to point B where another monster's waiting to beat him up, and then come up with a justification for moving him to point C so that, let's face it, Godzilla doesn't murder Kong.  This is, in fact, probably the best fundamental thing about GvK, in that it continually presents Kong as an underdog against a vastly superior foe, and the animation bringing Kong to life is sufficiently emotive that you can often tell that he's fighting desperately, not even necessarily to win, but just not to be summarily executed.

The first two big fights are by default the film's high points, the first on the high seas as Kong is being moved to Antarctica to access the Hollow Earth, and which puts Kong decisively out of his element.  The second is the film's obvious centerpiece and the thing everybody involved is the most proud of, a more even clash of Titans amidst the gaudily neon-lit skyscrapers of a fanciful Hong Kong that must have the most robust power grid and the best electrical codes on the face of the planet, the better to make candy-colored pop spectacle out of our monsters even as they bash each others' faces through buildingsand it is, I happily concede, pretty good, though the blazing neons might have had more visual impact if the design ethos of virtually every aspect of the film that could support it didn't also tilt decisively toward "shut-in's LED-studded gaming rig," to the extent that a major plot beat revolves around how Apex took a dead kaiju's skull and literally made an LED-studded gaming rig out of it.  (This obsession with ugly, cheap-looking neon is, I assume, the principal way that director Adam Wingard found his voice in this material, which in every other respect that's remotely interesting makes it very obvious that this was a movie directed by its pre-viz and VFX teams.  Then again, GvK fits in flawlessly with Wingard's career trajectory as a ruiner of established properties, so let's not count auteurism out.)  The third fight takes us out of the titular premise and into confrontation with the most disappointing Mechagodzilla design in that creation's historyscrawny and skeletal, and basically just a Transformer, and the conclusion of this brawl is quite possibly the most unacceptable thing to happen in any major popcorn movie I've ever seen this side of Star Trek Into Darkness.  All along, GvK serves as riposte to all the people who complained about Godzilla '14 and KotM's obscurity, with a bunch of CGI that is perfectly, completely readable and, unlike in those films, only occasionally capable of overcoming the sensation that you're watching exactly what it is, a weightless, stakesless cartoon.

The charitable way to view it is an homage to the sugar-high kiddie matinees that screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa often made out of his Godzilla films (the most frivolous but also some of the best being directed by Jun Fukuda), but there was an enthusiastic bounciness to even their most static films that felt comic booky and appealing, always zigging and zagging but also always maintaining their own nutty, internal logic.  This feels like fragments of a movie arbitrarily smashed together with just enough hot intellectual property on intellectual property action to make you feel something, and even then, only for about ten minutes of it.

Score: 4/10

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