When “Godzilla,” the first film in the current crop of American giant monster movies that now includes this week’s release “Godzilla vs. Kong,” was first released back in 2014, I experienced something outside of my local theater that helped shape how I think about these films now. It was a man, having just experienced the same movie I did, walking out of the theater and rather animatedly explaining to his friends that the film made no sense to him, because he didn’t like the awestruck way in which characters kept stopping to gawk at the building-sized radioactive lizard stomping through the city. If it was him, he explained, “I’d be running.”
Now, I’m not saying the man was wrong in his appraisal of his own ability to respond to a giant lizard attack, but that moment crystallized for me the difference between my own view of these movies and the views of a certain subset of the population who will simply never be able to look at giant monster films outside the lens of “I’d be running.”
That’s not a problem, necessarily. Everyone responds to art in their own way, and these movies aren’t for everyone. For me, the problem actually comes when filmmakers begin second-guessing themselves as a response to the “I’d be running” crowd, when these films become so self-serious that they become over-explained, dulled, and lacking any sense of the wonder that should come with stories on such an epic scope. To make a good giant monster movie, you need to love giant monsters, and worry a little less about the people who’d rather be running away.
Which brings us to “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The fourth film in the current “Monsterverse,” after the rather impressive “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” brings in yet another director (“You’re Next” and “The Guest” mastermind Adam Wingard) to tackle the city-stomping action, this time to chronicle the showdown referenced in the title, a clash of two “alpha predator” beasts that’s been billed by the film’s marketing as the ultimate big screen battle. It doesn’t get everything right, but this clash of titans succeeds as an exercise in pure, grand-scale fun, in large part because it could care less if you think it’s silly, or if you’d be running away from the “real-life” version of its action.
We know this because Wingard’s film begins in a high gear, throwing major plot developments at the screen right in the opening minutes without taking a breath to catch you up or try to insert extra bits of backstory to make sure you’re following the overall mythology. In rapid succession, we meet a conspiracy theorist who’s convinced something is happening with the world’s giant monster population (Brian Tyree Henry), a young monster enthusiast from the last film who believes Godzilla is distressed (Millie Bobby Brown), a scientist who’s appointed herself Kong’s protector (Rebecca Hall), an industrialist who believes he’s cracked the monster problem for good (Demian Bichir) and a number of other characters whose journeys are all geared toward establishing the same stakes. Those stakes are: Godzilla and Kong can’t meet, because if they do their natural instinct will be to fight each other, and the humans who’ve become students of these monsters and their history don’t want that to happen.
That’s the basic central tension at work in this film, at least where Wingard is concerned, and it’s there that he focuses the majority of his story energy. One of the most common criticisms that’s already emerged in discussing “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the way it treats its human characters, but I actually don’t see much of a problem there. The human characters are there to make a journey that facilitates the monster battles, and while that does sometimes mean this film is lacking in human character development, everyone involved seems game for what they’re being asked to do. From Hall’s earnest love for Kong to Henry’s absolute commitment to digging deep into the paranoia of his character, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the smaller-stature characters who inhabit this landscape.
Which of course, leaves the large-stature characters, and it’s there that “Godzilla vs. Kong” truly shines. Wingard is clearly having a blast delivering these monster clashes, whether the two titans are duking it out on an aircraft carrier or in a neon-drenched city, there’s no trace of hesitancy or timidity to the way he directs these sequences. Godzilla and Kong feel like real characters, with real emotions behind their monstrous eyes, and that means that whenever they do something particularly brutal onscreen it connects with us. As long as you’re not deeply invested in your own ability to run away from them, every moment they share in this film works with often surprising depth.
And it’s here, in that depth, that I think “Godzilla vs. Kong” really finds its footing as something beyond an action extravaganza. What are giant monsters in movies, after all, but metaphors for the horrors of our existence writ large? Godzilla emerged out of post-atomic anxiety in Japan, while Kong and his original story of being ripped away from his prehistoric existence still reads as a potent metaphor for the disastrous consequences of meddling with nature we don’t understand. Even “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” this film’s predecessor, managed to turn its giant monsters into walking metaphors for climate change. Here, in the ultimate battle between the two most famous movie mega-monsters, the conversation turns to exactly how much control we can give over to the more primal forces at work in our world. We understand them and respect them and want to harness them, or even connect with them in some way, but how much can we really do that? When do we engage, and when do we step back? These are the larger questions at work in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” and the result is a film that sticks with you even outside of the spectacular action.
‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ is in theaters and on HBO Max now.