Monsterverse. I love this franchise. It really has something for everyone: suspense, class cinematography, excellent writing, terrible writing, characters you don’t care about and action scenes there only to make you stuff your face with popcorn faster. Everything - the good and the bad of cinema. Unfortunately, GodzIlla vs Kong is mostly the latter. It is, to me at least, everything that KOTM was criticised for on its release. It's this radical quality shift that’s why the franchise is so interesting. So why is the entry with the greatest box office success the worst? Reverance - or lack of it.
When GodzIlla (2014) came out, a lot of people complained it didn’t have enough GodzIlla and that the human story was boring. I disagree. I think it’s a masterclass in building and balancing suspense. It knows you want to see Godzilla in full, battling other monsters, and it toys with you. It makes you wait, and it uses every trick in the book before you get there. I loved it. When GodzIlla finally does show for the big fight, it hits with the full weight of all that built tension, all at once, and it’s amazing. Even today, after watching it multiple times, I get the same feeling. And if, by some chance, I just watch the GodzIlla fight scene without having watched the build up, I don’t enjoy it as much. Sure, it looks cool, but it only has a fraction of the impact. It’s a hollow experience and I may as well just be watching clips on YouTube.
That’s how I feel about the whole of Godzilla vs Kong. It’s the epic fight scene without the emotional build up; the payoff without the set up. Even if I watch the whole movie, none of the action scenes have the weight of those brief scenes in the first movie of the series. Even King of the Monsters managed huge tension because of the size of the threat and pure joy of seeing so many monsters together in one film.
Disclaimer for those who believe criticism means absolute hate: Don’t get me wrong. It’s still better than a lot of movies out there and I enjoyed it the first time around, but I couldn't help but be aware of the flaws and wouldn’t have given it more than three stars if I had a rating system. Then, rewatching it for this article confirmed it. The film seemed even worse. GvK is trash next to the art of Godzilla and King of the Monsters and it ultimately comes down to poor direction.
Evidence: Godzilla appears in the first scene, which already throws one major point in the trash, but it goes one step further and throws our reverence for Big G in the stinking garbage pile too. The first thing he does is use his atomic fire breath against two fighter jets. Think back to Godzilla when we didn’t know how realistic or fantastical they were going to go with the character this time around. That moment where Godzilla is hidden in the dust and his tail starts to glow blue and we follow the glow up his body, piece by piece, and then blam! First use of atomic breath. It was an amazing moment in cinema. The excitement that yes, they are really going there, hit with the visual awe of the cinematography. Even in King of the Monsters the atomic breath was used sparingly, giving it an importance, a weight. Now GvK has him using that power move to swat a couple of insects. Then throughout the movie he uses atomic breath like a machine gun, spraying blue lasers everywhere. They disregarded its importance and in doing so it lost its coolness too. Gareth Edwards knew that to make something feel special you have to use it sparingly. That’s what the first movie was all about. GvK disregards that and throws everything at you to keep you entertained. It’s the cinematic equivalent of trying too hard.
More evidence: terrible editing. The first quarter of the movie is littered with unnecessary and badly executed exposition. There’s at least two of the podcast info dumps that the film would be better off without because the audience is ahead of the film. It’s totally wasted time, glaringly obvious because the scenes they are in offer nothing else of value either. Just get to the important stuff and maybe squeeze in some character scenes that matter to strengthen other weaknesses.
It’s kind of strange that there are human characters in this film at all, in fact. Kong emotes enough that we don’t need them on his team. Then the GodzIlla team only exist to introduce the real villain earlier. They could have just as easily had Mechagodzilla bursting out of the mountain at the end with no introduction and it wouldn’t have mattered in the context of the narrative. Yet, they also make Godzilla emote in this movie - something that Toho strictly did not want - and that damages another aspect of the film.
Godzilla is great when there’s a suggestion of intelligence. When we anthropomorphise him we feel a stronger connection because it’s free of real human social complications. So, in the moment when Godzilla outright laughs at Kong, celebrating finally hitting him with one of his many atomic breath blasts, suddenly Godzilla has the intelligence of a human and with that the social complications. We can’t support him without accepting the moral repercussions of his actions because he’s shown himself as cruel. He’s laughing at causing others misery. The audience should be on Godzilla’s side in his movies, without question, not pondering gray morality or justifying cruelty, especially when you know the two of them are just going to team up later.
I’ll admit, I still get a bit emotional when they finally put aside their differences for the sake of destroying a greater evil, and the ensuing fight looks cool, but, sorry folks, it lacks something. At each stage, the battle is one sided. Fights, like dialogue, should never be so one sided. There's no drama in it. It's boring. A bit of back and forth would really have helped sell this fight better. At least try and make us feel like it's not going for all the obvious beats.
What would have helped and is maybe the film's biggest sin is that during all the titan fight scenes, the humans are just on the sidelines watching. What really makes the kaiju scenes work for me is when we have the humans struggling to achieve their goals amid the chaos of the main fight. Think the soldiers trying to get to the bomb and carry it away in Godzilla. The parents and Maddie trying to find the Orca and each other in KOTM. It adds so much more tension. GvK has some cool fights but nothing amazing. Only a few gimmicks make it entertaining: spinning camera shots, throwing all the characters moves at you as fast as it can to keep you from thinking too hard…but the problem with gimmicks is that they only work once. It’s painfully obvious on rewatch that it’s just spectacle. It begs you to watch on a shallow concept and doesn’t add to that in any way.
So, sure, maybe my tendency to be critical ruined my fun here. There were some good scenes. The wonder of exploring Hollow earth for example. Yet each one is ruined by glaring flaws or silliness. I don't buy that the aircraft carriers would support Kong and Godzilla for example, the portal to Hollow Earth seems ridiculous, especially when they don't seem to apply to exiting said underground domain, and sure Godzilla zapping a tunnel all the way down there was cool, but ridiculous. Still, the burden is on the filmmakers here. We should be demanding art that lives up to our standards, not being satisfied with junk that they give us.