Action Adventure Kaiju Science Fiction

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
Director: Adam Wingard
Writers: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobbie Brown, Rebecca Hall
Genre: Action, Adventure, Science-Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Despite being the 36th movie in the Godzilla franchise (and the 12th in the King Kong franchise, I suppose), Godzilla vs. Kong manages to be pretty clever with its kaiju. They are absolutely glorious. And for a movie very clearly made by committee, that’s something to celebrate.

Godzilla vs. Kong even summons the ingenuity to have a likeable character or two, quite an achievement given Legendary’s so-called Monsterverse has a bemusing habit of offing its best characters. 2014’s Godzilla killed off Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who I think would’ve done an outstanding job being the central human anchor for this universe, as the characters introduced in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters sure as hell don’t succeed. King of the Monsters added insult to injury, killing off Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the only one making the cast of disposable sacks remotely bearable. To note, Godzilla vs. Kong keeps most of these characters, probably due to contractual obligations (this was filming by the time King of the Monsters released). The movie seems embarrassed by this and opts to give the Kong side of the story much more TLC, which I’m happy to report does pay off (it’s still not amazing, but it’s relatively good).

But we’re not here for the people, who are more so little plot ants to carry us from one beat to the next. We’re here for the title monsters, giving Godzilla vs. Kong some grace in that it doesn’t need to try very hard story-wise, as that isn’t the gambit. “Kong whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is working at a Skull Island containment facility, where Kong is isolated from the rest of the world in fear that Godzilla will detect him and come to assert dominance. Ilene’s adoptive (I think) daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has formed a special bond with Kong. Meanwhile, Godzilla has become extremely pissy and attacks a Florida facility belonging to very obviously shady tech company Apex Cybernetics, prompting Titan (the universe’s name for kaiju) organization Monarch’s concern that Godzilla has become a threat versus a protector as previously thought. This then prompts Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown) to join forces with Titan conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Bryan Tyree Henry) and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison), and the trio investigate Apex, reasoning that Godzilla had to have a reason for specifically attacking them. This line of thought doesn’t cross any other character’s mind.

As for Apex themselves, founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) convinces Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) – a scientist discredited for his theory about a “Hollow Earth” in the planet’s centre being responsible for the Titans’ origins and evolution – to use Kong to investigate the Hollow Earth. Thus, Lind joins forces with Andrews and her (again, I think) daughter, along with Simmons’ daughter, Maia (Eiza González), and they go on a little odyssey with Kong.

One must note that Godzilla vs. Kong is really a Kong movie ft. Godzilla – probably for the best, as the Godzilla end of the story is pretty desolate. Henry tries, but he’s shackled by a script that really would love to skim over character details, such that he’s stuck vomiting rushed exposition. Dennison is absolutely wasted, and Brown is just there. (Spoilers) In the end, they discover that Apex is developing Mechagodzilla to finally overthrow Godzilla as the… apex. It’s a subtle film.

What really gets me about the Godzilla end of the story is how a better, more narratively cohesive storyline was staring the filmmakers right in the face. Mechagodzilla is controlled by Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri). Note that he is the son of Ishirō from the past two Godzilla movies, as this movie isn’t keen to dwell on that. Also note that his father died in King of the Monsters, sacrificing himself to revive Godzilla. Also note that Apex is using a King Ghidorah skull from King of the Monsters. I like to imagine a version of Godzilla vs. Kong‘s script exists where we follow Serizawa helping develop Mechagodzilla, finding a way to acquire the Ghidorah skull, tying into loose plot threads from King of the Monsters, giving Serizawa’s family’s arc some depth, and also giving Mechagodzilla more impact than it basically showing up out of nowhere. Instead, we get Brown and co. bumbling about and managing to flank a startling lack of security for a company that managed to dig a Blade Runner-esque tunnel from Florida to Hong Kong. Worst still, none of the trio are actually doing anything until the very end. The filmmakers seem at least somewhat aware that this is bad and keep most of these scenes brisk, so there’s that if nothing else.

Conversely, the Kong plot matters to the overall story, and its greatest strength is Kong himself – a hugely expressive character, and the movie rightfully plays to Kong’s humanoid strengths, planting him as the protagonist. Kong’s relationship to Jia slots into your typical animal-human bond tale, but it’s effective – thanks to Hottle’s performance and Kong’s excellent character animation – and gives this side of the story way more emotion than the Godzilla side can hope to conjure. Lind and Andrews are decently watchable, with Skarsgård avoiding playing the macho leading man, instead opting for an ’80s-style mildly reluctant hero. Hall doesn’t do a ton, but she makes Andrews pleasant in a “I guess I don’t want to see you die when monsters throw down” way.

The Kong plot also brings us to the Hollow Earth, a lovely bit of sci-fi excess that the movie didn’t need to do but I’m pleased it did. It’s hard not to admire Godzilla vs. Kong‘s lack of restraint towards its sci-fi/fantasy elements – and really, why not? It’s a movie about giant impossible creatures causing massive swaths of destruction for our entertainment, why not throw the kitchen sink (especially when it looks as beautiful as this)? The Hollow Earth’s a fun bit of world-building, opening the door to future movies without forcing teases.

Of course, the Hollow Earth isn’t Godzilla vs. Kong‘s big-ticket item (but it’s a nice bonus) – that honour belongs to Godzilla and Kong and their inevitable versus-ing. The monsters’ Hong Kong fight is outstanding, taking full advantage of their distinct characteristics to choreograph a visceral and genuinely rousing centrepiece brawl. It’s aggressive, too, showcasing each monster at arguably the most primal and violent they’ve ever been, all under tremendously satisfying neon lighting. It’s among the very best fights in kaiju cinema and a joy to watch on a theatre screen.

The other two battles – one at sea, one against Mechagodzilla – are decent-to-good, never quite reaching the heights of the main Hong Kong fight. The one at sea’s quite fun in that Kong uppercuts Godzilla, followed by Godzilla bitch slapping Kong back, and I will never not enjoy either of those things, but it gets lost a little bit within its chaotic cutting and an excess of water effects. The Mechagodzilla fight’s also fun insomuch that you have Godzilla and Kong teaming against one of Godzilla’s historic nemeses, though it’s at the disadvantage of shortly following Godzilla and Kong’s one-on-one centrepiece battle and doesn’t really compete, ditching the cinematic neon for an overcast sky and drab neutral colours. That, and I have a disdain for this Mechagodzilla’s design – it’s a spindly thing more reminiscent of a Transformer than Mechagodzilla as we know and love it (its lack of teeth and plates are salient). A real bummer given that Godzilla and Kong both look exquisite. Kong’s design has never intrigued in its 88 years of existence (the brief is a large gorilla, not exactly open to massive creative liberties), but the monster’s facial expressions and overall movements are lovely achievements. And while a CGI Godzilla will never be quite as personally fulfilling as some person running around in a rubber suit, this is easily Hollywood’s best incarnation of the creature (that said, I have a minor gripe with its oddly bear-like snout, which has existed since Godzilla ’14 and throws me a little every time).

All told, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers exactly what it ought to and a little bit more, certainly improving over King of the Monsters by only having half the human characters completely flop instead of nearly the whole lot, and we get some truly exciting kaiju fights that aren’t shrouded in nighttime rain. It doesn’t threaten the top-tier Godzilla movies – like 1954’s Godzilla, or 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla – though it is snugly in the better-half, for whatever that’s worth (King Kong movies are largely trash, save for the 1933 original and 2005 remake, so Godzilla vs. Kong ranks as one of that franchise’s best without much effort). As for the future of Legendary’s monster movies, I look forward to the inevitable Kong sequel that further explores the Hollow Earth, promising some nice pulp fantasy. As for the lizard’s next outing, God help us all if we’re latched with King of the Monsters‘ characters yet again.

Horror Science Fiction Summer of Horror

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Universal’s been attempting to restart their famous horror icons for a hot minute now, including an embarrassing effort to start a “Dark Universe” that had fancy cast photoshoots and everything, beginning with Tom Cruise’s ill-fated The Mummy. As with many forms of hubris, this did not pan out, and Universal let Blumhouse take a crack at their monsters with The Invisible Man. If their Invisible Man is the standard going forward, I am very much into whatever they have in the pipeline.

The Invisible Man of 2020 is not faithful to the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, nor to the 1933 movie. It takes the bones of the novel and creates something mostly different – what we get is a story of a sociopathic scientist engaging in domestic abuse rather than a crazed scientist terrorizing a town – and it’s effective in its own right, really. The opening alone is one of the most impressive in a while, with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) quietly plotting to get away from her husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night. There’s sparse music and sparser dialogue, we know nothing about these people, but we immediately clue into what’s happening and it is immediately tense.

The first half, I’d say, of The Invisible Man is masterful in building and sustaining tension, using many things a movie has in its toolbelt to full advantage, from Moss’ extremely expressive face to panning the camera towards negative space, priming us for jolts that usually don’t happen. It toys with expectations, acutely aware that we’re anticipating a man who is probably invisible, gradually showing its hand until dealing it in a most perfect way, kicking the movie from a relative slow-burn (it’s rather small-scale at first, mostly taking place at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house) into a sprint.

That sprint isn’t as delicious as the simmering anxiety in the first half, and it’s tonally jarring at first – shifting from horror to more sci-fi thriller – but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal to the story, even if I’d argue trading its efficiency at horror is a bit of a letdown. But to be fair, I can recognize that there are only so many times you can do the “oOoOo is he there?” setup and throw around Elisabeth Moss before it’s rote. Cecilia is a textbook example of the core screenwriting tenet of taking nice people and doing absolutely horrible things to them, and it’s more impressive that she’s not a paper-thin character in turn. We get a legitimate sense of her aspirations and her past life before becoming entangled with Adrian and his schemes, we know any quirks or outbursts come from a place of deep trauma, so when she fights back it’s very satisfying, letting us overlook a couple actions that feel slightly out of place for her because goddamnit you want her to succeed. And the stakes here are elemental – an unseen evil seeks to ruin everything Cecilia has that can improve her life. By trying to escape that evil, it gets worse. The Invisible Man doesn’t elaborate on that much further, aside from serving as a commentary (albeit a relatively basic one) on abusive relationships and the lasting dysfunction resulting from them, but that’s the smart play as it keeps everything humming along nicely.

And despite being a 2-hour movie, The Invisible Man really does breeze. It knows when not to overstay its welcome, when you’re about to get bored of a sequence (the climactic fight scene is on the bleeding edge of going on for too long before ending at the most ideal time), plus I have to admire a movie that gets to the point without flourish and doesn’t feel like something’s missing. The only exception to that might be the last 10-15 minutes – they’re all over the place and eager to hurry to the end, even though the beats themselves make sense. For a movie that makes quite sure we know Cecilia is hurting and lets us feel the various impacts of that, it’s odd to feel like everything’s on fast-forward in the last moments that ought to be the most meaningful (I’m a fan of those individual moments themselves, however).

That’s not a significant critique when the rest of the movie is so proficient. The Invisible Man is well-versed in the fundamental ingredients that make horror effective and entertaining, and when it unshackles its horror trappings it still manages to be compelling viewing. It’s not big, it’s not aspiring to shift any paradigms, but it’s incredibly confident in the cat-and-mouse story it wants to deliver and just as gripping where it counts.