By the time I’m writing this review, I’ve already seen Godzilla vs. Kong twice. If I had any doubts about Legendary’s MonsterVerse being my favorite cinematic universe out there, they’re gone now. The work that’s been done across these four movies has captured a type of unique magic that hardly any single Hollywood tent-pole has, let alone big franchises. That comes mostly from having an in-depth understanding of the core of their source material not only on paper, but from a filmmaking standpoint too. Have these movies been universally acclaimed by mainstream critics? No. And thank Goddess they haven’t. Because say what you will about them, one thing they have never been is generic. They haven’t submitted to the textbook American blockbuster style – hell, right off the bat they mocked it with the death of oh-so-strong-a-protagonist Joe Brody, played by Bryan Cranston in 2014’s Godzilla. And now we get to what’s probably the first true event film of the series since its birthing entry, a rematch decades in the making, and one that at long last perfects a type of cinema that Hollywood unsuccessfully tried to crack for years: the versus movie, a crossover film putting two iconic characters from different franchises to fight.
Sure, there’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice which I love, but that’s not really a “versus” movie, not like we’re talking about here. BVS is a political thriller that has its titular superheroes at the center of it, we’re talking about the fuck-shit-up, I’mma-deck-you-in-the-face-while-rock-n-roll-plays kind of versus movie. The two Alien vs. Predator movies were frustratingly mediocre, and Freddy vs. Jason was pretty fun, but it still felt like it didn’t fully live up to the promise of its crossover. Japan, on the other hand, has offered more interesting entries with the timelessly fun original King Kong vs. Godzilla, the shockingly good Sadako vs. Kayako and the full-blown whimsical masterpiece that is 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Of course, Toho’s Godzilla films have worn the “versus” moniker many times, especially in their Showa Era, even when they were not crossing over with another franchise but merely introducing a new monster like Megalon, Gigan or MechaGodzilla… And between those Showa Era movies and the great Japanese “versus” crossovers Godzilla vs. Kong finds its magic, and captures everything that was missing in previous American attempts at the “genre” in a similar way that Legendary’s version of Godzilla captured what was missing in Rolland Emmerich’s: full honesty with its promise, and absolute reverence for both its characters and their legacies.
Back when it was announced, I first thought that the choice of Adam Wingard to direct this movie was… peculiar. In hindsight, it was actually perfect. The MonsterVerse films have been helmed by relatively young directors with a much more modern notion of pop culture and fresh sensibilities, and in that department Wingard might be the most exciting one. He understands that these are not generic American monsters from an everyday disaster blockbuster and that they’re mythological, but not in the traditional manners like the Kraken and the many Titans of Greek mythology which they’re named after. This is post-modern mythology being written in our lifetime, and we’re witnessing it – much like M. Night Shyamalan posed superheroes as the post-modern mythological gods of our time and culture in Unbreakable, kaiju like Godzilla and Kong (who has earned the title of a “kaiju” even if he’s American) are the post-modern mythological Titans of our time and culture. But Wingard also knows that our relationship with these Titans is different than that of the people from back in a day and theirs, as much as is our world. In his history Godzilla has gone from doing backsliding flying kicks to being an unspeakable eldritch horror vaporizing cities, and in the in-between spectrum of those two extremes lies everything that makes him Godzilla, the King of the Monsters. Kong, although he’s older, has less history, but the same logic applies. For both of them, Adam Wingard manages to capture all that they are, in just under 2 hours – and the best thing about post-modern mythology? It comes with anime references and synthwave.
This film has an enormous amount of reverence not only for their titular kaiju as characters but their history. The way Wingard and writers Max Borenstein and Eric Pearson acknowledge past incarnations of Godzilla and Kong feels much more authentic than mere easter eggs – because even though some of them are overt for fan appreciation, many are built in the core of their characterization. Godzilla has elements from every period of his existence from the Showa Era to the current Reiwa one – be it a grin evocative of 70’s Goji or a crawling movement visually reminiscent of Shin Godzilla‘s haunting first form -, which are not used to make him a shallow easter egg machine, but to enrich and complement this version of Godzilla that Legendary created. The same goes for Kong, which the film cleverly sways away from the done-to-death “falls in love with a blonde white woman” aspect of the character and instead focus on his relationship with the last native of his island, a mute girl named Jia (debuting actress Kaylee Hottle in a fantastic performance), putting that sweet friendship at the very heart of the film’s emotional core. In addition, instead of the already known classic Kong storyline of his original film and its two remakes, they implement in him elements from Ishiro Honda’s King Kong Escapes and shit, even King Kong Lives – which I’m a defender of – to complement the MonsterVerse’s version of the great ape, which is his first fully original incarnation since Lives.
With all of the authenticity of their previous lives built into the heart of their new original versions, when Godzilla and Kong come toe to toe it truly feels like THE Godzilla and THE King Kong, longtime rivals who’ve eluded each other since their 1963 encounter finally meet again for a legendary rematch long awaited. By being mindful and respectful of their mythology, these new versions feel like they have the baggage. They’re not iconic because they have the recognizable designs and abilities and roars, they feel iconic because they have the mythology behind them. And my oh my when they go at it… It’s simply glorious. Wingard is entirely aware of the huge power gap between the two of them and respects that while using it to his advantage – he neither weakens Godzilla nor uncharacteristically powers up Kong, instead he constantly finds fresh ways to keep the battle exciting and uses their power scaling to build momentum for thrilling sequences. He knows Kong can’t be caught in Godzilla’s atomic breath as much as we do, so he plays it for tension, designing mini-climaxes for each battle.
Adding up to the thrill of their fights is the fact that Godzilla and Kong are both written, framed and performed as actual characters. Each one has a goal, an arc they’re going through, which influences the human characters’ decisions, which influence their journey and ultimately puts them at each other’s crossroads. We know Godzilla and Kong’s objectives and why they matter to the story, so whenever they fight and become obstacles to one another, the stakes are amplified. It’s not a simple matter of “who bows to who?”, as the story progresses the potential outcome of their battle becomes evidently more important and consequential to the story – and yes, there is a definitive winner. The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the monster stuff either; each entry of the MonsterVerse had a very distinct approach while maintaining the sense of a coherent cinematic universe, and GVK scales down from the massive world-ending epic that was King of the Monsters to tell a straight-forward story in a seemingly silly movie that’s all about the brawl. Its toonier tone, Wingard’s slick sense of humor, tight pacing and shorter runtime make it gloriously feel straight out of the Showa Era of Godzilla films as a deliciously entertaining treat.
Visually the film is just stupid. It’s the best the MonsterVerse has ever looked, with Ben Serasin photographing it all in the most rich spectrum of eye-popping colors we’ve seen in the series – topping even Larry Fong’s exquisite work in Kong: Skull Island. The Hong Kong battle between Godzilla and Kong drenching them both in gorgeous neon glow is the most visually stunning tent-pole sequence I’ve seen since Pacific Rim. It feels – and absolutely is – a collaboration between cinematography, on point color grading, cutting edge visual effects and a commendable production design that created this slightly futuristic, quasi-cyberpunk Hong Kong that offers the hypercolorful lights in which our titular kaiju bathe. Outside of that sequence, everything else looks stunning as well, but the next highlight is certainly the stupendous look of the Hollow Earth – which, the further exploration of the concept here brings home a sense of wonder, that whimsical blend of sci-fi and fantasy that’s very present in Japanese science fiction. Michael Dougherty had this sensibility for Godzilla: King of the Monsters and evidently Adam Wingard has it too, in his own distinct style.
The visual effects are jaw-droppingly insane. The rendering of every kaiju and the havoc they wreak is ultra convincing and complementary to the entire visual conception of the film. Godzilla and Kong’s souls shine through the impeccable rendering of their digital models and the fine acting of their performance-capture actors. They have such a range of expressions and so much going on throughout the movie you can see their entire character arcs play out on their eyes. It also helps that Wingard often frames them in a personal manner – he uses close-ups to highlight their reactions to one another or to other sorts of attacks; as two characters converse in front of Kong he cuts away to the ape paying attention to the conversation; he bounces frontal close shots between Godzilla and Kong such as he did with Light and L in the diner scene in Death Note. This is a framing style that’s common with human characters but it’s often overlooked when it comes to giant CGI monsters, and here they get the same treatment, as Wingard makes a point of highlighting their personalities to the most.
Still on Wingard’s direction, his visual signature shines in this whole movie with remarkable gravitas, from his frame composition to his camera movements, as well as his general employment of visual language. During their fight scenes, Wingard always makes sure to highlight the impressive choreography of the exciting monster rumble with his filming techniques – he often simulates a camera strapped to the kaiju as he moves, be it from Kong’s shoulder or Godzilla’s chest, and at some point he even does a first-person shot from Kong’s perspective. He couples the wackier tone of this film with some uniquely resonating compositions that look straight out of an anime frame, creating a powerful splash-page aesthetic feels and looks fresh for a Hollywood movie without being too obvious. He also orchestrates complex camera movements that favor the massive scale of the Titans and the stakes to whoever’s in scene, getting to play around with axis in creative ways – sometimes with a narrative device to justify it. There’s one particular piece of camera work that made me audibly gasp the first time I saw it and it continues to amaze me now.
Junkie XL’s soundtrack is great, but I do have some mixed feelings about certain parts of it – particularly Godzilla’s theme. Holkenborg’s music for Godzilla is good, it works, and it’s definitely informed by Akira Ifukube’s original theme – but it sounds so much like Ifukube, with an nearly identical note progression, that it just sounds like complementary music to the true Godzilla theme, and doesn’t really justify the sidelining one of the most iconic themes in the history of cinema. There’s no good reason why Junkie XL’s theme and the original can’t be used together in the same film, and a lot of times it feels like I’m listening to the B part of a Godzilla theme rather than the main thing itself every time he shows up. Still, it doesn’t bother me too much because XL’s theme being so derivative of Ifukube’s at least makes it feel right in the musical continuity of the character. And I have nothing but praise for his occasional use of synthwave as per Wingard’s style, and his majestically wonderful Kong theme. The needle drops were also picked and handled with surgical perfection, as they usually are with Wingard.
The only really notable issue that I had with Godzilla vs. Kong was the trimming down of Shun Oguri’s role as Ren Serizawa. It got cut down to the point they never even address his relation to Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa from the previous movies, which had made him the most intriguing character in the story – and Shun Oguri is easily the most talented actor in this entire cast, so seeing him cast as this character related to such an important name in Godzilla mythology only for his role to be trimmed down so much was undeniably frustrating.
There are a lot of interesting thematic deep-dives I’d like to do with Kong and Godzilla’s arcs in the story and their relation to the world that was built here, but for the sake of spoilers I can’t. Maybe I’ll do it some other time; as of right now what I can say is that Godzilla vs. Kong was one of the most deliriously exciting blockbusters to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. A hyper-stylized visual feast of titanic proportions that signals American cinema finally getting the perfect grasp of how to make a rocking “versus” movie. Godzilla and Kong are the biggest stars of the year so far, and I truly hope this film’s success opens a clear pathway for the MonsterVerse to continue, because I want as much of these two – of these specific iterations of the characters – as I can possibly have. This was a 160 million dollars Showa Era Godzilla film and I was here for it. Blessed be Wingard.
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