A few nights ago, I watched “Godzilla vs. Kong” alone in my darkened living room. This was far from ideal, but it did make me acutely nostalgic for a specific pleasure that I have gone without for 13 months. There are many reasons I miss going to movie theaters, but one of them I hadn’t really taken account of is the particular delight of watching a bad movie on a big screen.
I don’t mean “bad” in a bad way. It’s a description, rather than a judgment. “Godzilla vs. Kong,” directed by Adam Wingard, is the fourth episode in a franchise, called the MonsterVerse, engineered from fossilized B-movie DNA. As such, it assembles an impressive human cast to run around explaining fake science and calling attention to what is happening in plain sight. “Did the monkey just talk?” someone asks. He did, sort of, but that’s not what anybody is here to see. We paid money to watch him fight the lizard.
Well, I didn’t, but if things were different I might have. Not necessarily as part of a monthly HBO Max subscription fee, mind you. (The movie made $123 million in theaters overseas last weekend.) The spectacle of the titular titans going mano a mano was meant to be witnessed in the presence of restless members of your own species, whose behavior provokes you to groan at the ridiculous parts, laugh too hard at the secondhand jokes and cheer when simian fist connects with saurian jaw.
Absent such company, it’s possible at least to admire “Godzilla vs. Kong” for what it is — an action movie made with lavish grandiosity, zero pretension and not too much originality. An opening sequence gestures in the direction of previous MonsterVerse installments (“Godzilla,” “Kong: Skull Island” and “Godzilla King of the Monsters”) while also tapping into the energy-drink rhythms of playoff sports broadcasting. Myths and legends are invoked along with genetics and geophysics, but bracketology is the relevant intellectual discipline.
And the principal aesthetic achievements are the Kaiju and the ape. They fight at sea and on the streets of Hong Kong, and their bodies are rendered in loving, preposterous detail. Kong’s size seems to fluctuate a bit, as if he were a boxer hovering between weight classes. His fingernails are beautiful, though, his teeth straight and his fur impressively groomed.
The movie, written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, may tilt a little in Kong’s favor. He has a sweet friendship with a young girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottle), whose guardian is Ilene Andrews, a sensitive scientist played by Rebecca Hall. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is less sensitive, and is ethically compromised by his involvement with Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), a corporate bigwig who expounds on technological ambitions while wearing a brocade smoking jacket and brandishing a tumbler of Scotch.
You know the type. You may also know the misfit types who take up Godzilla’s side of the story: the paranoid podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry); the nervous nerd (Julian Dennison); the independent-minded teenage girl (Millie Bobby Brown). Brown was in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” and so was Kyle Chandler, who once again plays her father, the anxious bureaucrat. That movie and the other earlier MonsterVerse pictures were a little more interested in people than this one, which reduces motives and relationships to visual shorthand and indifferently written banter.
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The poetry, as I’ve suggested, resides with the beasts. Kong, being a warm-blooded creature, is the more passionate and moody of the two. He also learns to communicate with humans and to use tools, or at least a glowing ax that he finds in a cavern deep under the earth’s surface. (The earth is hollow, in case you didn’t know.) Godzilla is simpler, but also more enigmatic — a small-brained killer whose scaly face nonetheless registers an almost philosophical weariness as well as instinctive belligerence.
Which would you bet on? I’m not going to spoil anything. In spite of the pale-blue death rays that shoot out of Godzilla’s mouth, it’s an old-fashioned donnybrook, a brawl that feels more physical than digital. Kong has broad shoulders and the ability to make a fist, but Godzilla has claws, a low center of gravity and a sledgehammer tail.
It isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t mean much, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” turns its limitations into virtues and makes stupidity into its own kind of ingenuity. The original “Gojira” was an allegory of human recklessness, much as the old “King Kong” was a tragedy catalyzed by human cruelty. They were pop fables, something this slick spectacle doesn’t remotely aspire to be. But it does at least honor the nobility of the brutes on the screen as it caters to the appetites of the brutes on the couch.
Godzilla vs. Kong
Rated PG-13. Large animal mayhem. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
Godzilla vs. Kong
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