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Godzilla vs Kong

Year: 2021
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Terry Rossio/Michael Dougherty/Zach Shields/Eric Pearson/Max Borenstein
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Demián Bichir, Brian Tyree Henry, Julian Dennison, Eiza González, Kyle Chandler

In the few years after 9/11 it was seen as tasteless and kind of grotesque to depict carnage in big cities with buildings falling down and clouds of dust ballooning through cavernous streets, the kind of thing movie directors had been showing us since the advent of the CGI era made it so easy to do.

What a difference a few decades makes. In the climactic scrap between the titular kaiju monsters half of Hong Kong is laid waste, 9/11 times 100 (as Team America: World Police parodied) as buildings topple and explode when the bodies of monsters hundreds of feet high are thrown or slammed against them.

So even though I found myself wondering as I watched whether such gleeful mayhem would be upsetting or offensive to anyone, I kept reminding myself that such an orgy of destruction is kind of implicit in the title. In fact it can almost be thought of as peak high concept. You want Godzilla and King Kong punching and biting each other? It even says so on the label.

You'd also think such a thing would be easy to get right, but critics (and a lot of audiences) disliked Godzilla: King of the Monsters, whereas director Adam Wingard's entry has proven much better received.

And to be honest, it's a little bit of a mystery why. Criticisms around Michael Dougherty's effort were mostly about how thin and feckless the human characters and story were, but I found myself rolling my eyes at all the single-line archetypes here too.

There's Kong's passionate advocate and keeper, Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who watches over him on the enormous biodome Monarch has constructed on Skull Island to hold him. The cute, unspeaking child and only survivor of the native tribe we met in Kong: Skull Island who's become Kong's best friend and conscience. There's the hot nerd scientist who was ridiculed for his visionary views on the hollow earth theory, Nathan (Alexander Skarsgård) who teams up with them.

In a parallel story, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, who still can't act) listens to an underground podcast by a conspiracy theorist, Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) who works undercover for a top secret lab and reports on all their shady goings on. When Godzilla unexpectedly makes landfall and lays waste to the facility, he contends that they're experimenting with some top secret power source that's woken the monster up and made him think there's a rival he has to depose there.

Madison tracks him down, they hook up with a nerdy quipping sidekick and another character straight out of the book of overused archetypes, Josh (Julian Dennison), and they go off in search of the secret being hidden in Hong Kong courtesy of a superfast underground transport network owned and operated by the company – a concern run by yet another paper thin stereotype in the slimy CEO (Demián Bichir).

It's all in service to let Kong out of captivity and into the hollow earth to track a power source that will give him the power to fight back against Godzilla and protect humanity, where the slimy CEO and his stoic Asian chief engineer and their secret project will throw a huge metal spanner in the works.

...I think. For something so tightly plotted and with such an agreeable running time – Adam Wingard has famously said he doesn't think any movie should be over 90 minutes – there's an awful lot of expository shoe leather to put Kong, Godzilla and (spoiler) in the same arena.

Not a lot of it makes sense, much of it is cringe-worthy and a lot of it is characters and dialogue that reminds you of fast forwarding through porn in the VHS era to bypass the 'story' and reach the hot stuff. Kyle Chandler as Madison's father, for instance, shows up in just two scenes where his only job is to talk to her on the phone and worry about her.

That's all the bad news, but it's all basically niggling, because what the movie promises, it delivers. There are at least three major monster fight set pieces, each one more inventive than the last, all of them lushly and realistically animated and enough to shake the theatre to its foundations.

Though Wingard doesn't necessarily have the same keen eye for innovative imagery that Jordan Vogt Roberts did in Kong: Skull Island (although he is very good using distinctive colour), he knows how to design and execute a shot. For the first time in the MUTO-verse we actually go down into the hollow earth, and along with other locations like the Antarctica-set entryway, a flotilla of warships transporting Kong across the sea and the wall-shaking Hong Kong smackdown, there's a beautiful sense of size and scope, making you believe for all the world that monsters hundreds of feet tall are moving and interacting with real places.

Strangely for a movie like this, particular kudos has to go to the writers (nonsensical plot notwithstanding) for at least one welcome element. Usually a CGI blockbuster like this goes through countless writers and teams of writers until all semblance of a distinctive cinematic personality is shaved off, but whoever had the idea of bringing a beloved icon from elsewhere in classic kaiju lore into the story had a stroke of genius.

It will awaken the 10 year old kid in you again, and though it might just be the timing of its release (it's the first major big screen release to make any real money in a global pandemic while a vaccine is being distributed across the world, something many have signalled as marking a return of moviegoing) it's great fun.

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