The Awesome Emptiness of Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla and Kong fight on a battleship
HBO MAX

In Godzilla vs. Kong, the plot is just an excuse to get to the titular brawl. The film follows a team traveling to Hollow Earth—the secret underground home of titans such as Godzilla and Kong—on behalf of a shady corporation seeking to harness its energy source. They transport Kong away from Skull Island so that he can guide them on their quest, but, uh-oh, Kong and Godzilla are ancient rivals, and, oh no, two apex predators can’t exist at the same time. What could possibly happen when they cross paths?!

Pure chaos, of course, but chaos that’s strangely soothing to take in. The story isn’t thematically interesting, nor does it offer much to analyze. Neither Godzilla nor Kong is a metaphor for some greater crisis; they’re just two creatures in a mesmerizingly choreographed boxing match, pummeling each other to pieces. At this stage of late-pandemic exhaustion, watching a film actively reject relevance and refuse to dwell on human emotion wasn’t an annoyance, but a relief. Out today on HBO Max, Godzilla vs. Kong is the sort of loud, mindless blockbuster that Hollywood rolls out in the summer. But it’s been almost two years since the last normal summer-movie season, and if the film’s impressive overseas ticket sales are any indication, viewers returning to theaters crave sensory overload, not careful plotting.

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Apart from Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a little girl from Skull Island who can communicate with Kong and becomes distraught when he does, none of the characters’ anxiety and paranoia leave much of an impression. Every bit of dialogue serves only to help explain why a dinosaur with radiation breath must fight an overgrown ape. I realized, as Kong swung his radioactive ax (he gets a radioactive ax) at Godzilla’s tiny lizard head, that I’d missed the sweet simplicity of a popcorn movie. This film is not meant to be watched, but to be gawked at. The camera swoops underwater as Godzilla drags Kong beneath the ocean; it crouches under their bodies as they spar on land; then it zips close to their faces to capture their snarls. Godzilla hurtles into a skyscraper, glass raining down on his back. Kong leaps off a battleship to avoid a burst of his enemy’s atomic breath. Their fights take place against spectacular backdrops too: The ocean showdown happens at sunset, golden hour illuminating the waves. Their nighttime clash in Hong Kong is lit in neon, giving the pair an otherworldly glow. The film is hectic, noisy, and maximalist when it comes to its inhuman stars. During a scene in Hollow Earth, Kong decapitates a winged monster and lifts its head above his mouth so that he can, like a drunken medieval lord, guzzle the gooey green blood that pours out of its neck, before belching in victory. The entire sequence is gross, yet so, so glorious. I wanted to rewatch it immediately.

But—yes, I’m afraid there’s a but—the movie is, in some ways, a disappointment. Taken on its own, Godzilla vs. Kong is a serviceable action spectacle. Taken as part of a collection of movies about mythical characters who symbolize existential crises, however, the film is a sign that the MonsterVerse (the franchise shared by Warner Bros. and Legendary studios) has given up on its original artistic ambition of reimagining the classic films of decades past. The first film, 2014’s Godzilla, established a secret government agency called Monarch, which studies titans but also risks threatening their safety and habitats. Monarch has appeared in every film, but observations about the perils of human curiosity and discovery have waned with each successive entry, even as the visual effects of today have made characters such as Mothra and King Ghidorah look more astonishing than ever.

As with other modern franchises, each installment has recruited a different director behind the camera. But the MonsterVerse has allowed its filmmakers to put their stylistic stamp on their projects and pursue unusual, unexpected scenarios for their gargantuan leads. Gareth Edwards’s aforementioned Godzilla reboot featured more shots of its actors gaping up at the sky than of Godzilla himself, to the dismay of some viewers. Yet it also wove in poignant observations about inherited trauma and depicted the terror of being confronted with the smallness of the human species. Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and released in 2017, riffed on Apocalypse Now; the film was set at the end of the Vietnam War and featured a particularly hammy performance from Samuel L. Jackson as a Colonel Kurtz–like figure driven mad.

Even the franchise’s weakest entry, 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, from Michael Dougherty, said something about man’s hubris and obsession. The film treated the titans as divine creatures—the trailer set the action to a twinkly version of “Clair de Lune”—which Vera Farmiga and Ken Watanabe’s characters would worship to the point of sacrificing themselves. These films weren’t solely interested in having Godzilla fight a rogues’ gallery of foes, as he did in the later Japanese films of the 1960s and ’70s, but also putting a modern horror spin on the proceedings. They showed how humans must coexist with insurmountable catastrophes, adapt to the knowledge of possible annihilation, and accept the limitations of their abilities.

In the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, the director Adam Wingard (whose résumé includes the clever thriller The Guest) displays barely any of the morbid wit that he brought to his earlier work. Unlike Edwards and Vogt-Roberts, he doesn’t get the chance to build a compelling narrative around the titans’ relationship with humans; the film is too focused on the duo’s confrontation and their anger and resentment toward each other. If the MonsterVerse moves forward—and given the solid international box-office returns, it just might—it seems likely to trade storytelling for mayhem now that Godzilla and Kong have crossed paths, and Hollow Earth has been discovered. At this rate, the next film might as well be a true creature feature, no humans allowed. I myself had wished for more Godzilla after the 2014 film; the wish has been granted, using a Kong-size monkey’s paw.

Still, it’s kind of admirable how aggressively Godzilla vs. Kong eschews any grander meaning. During the pandemic, escapism has often come in the form of a comfort watch or a low-stakes fantasy. This, however, is a work that aims to grab hold of a viewer’s attention and never let it go. It’s an uncanny distraction of enormous proportions, the boat-stuck-in-the-Suez-Canal of pop-culture diversions. Late in the movie, a pair of characters build—spoiler alert, though this has already been revealed in trailers—Mechagodzilla, Godzilla’s robot doppelgänger. In just two scenes, the film introduces the creators’ master plan and then immediately kills them off so that Mechagodzilla can run amok, sans human control, into the path of Godzilla and Kong to start another melee. When Godzilla saw Mechagodzilla and accepted the challenge, I sat back and let the titans do their thing.