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▶︎ Godzilla vs. Kong is available on major streaming platforms.
In 1962, Toho Pictures secured the rights to King Kong from RKO to initiate a series of films in which the Japanese studio’s alpha kaiju Gojira/Godzilla fought other creatures, mostly from Toho’s back catalogue. It was rumoured that Ishiro Honda’s Kingu Kongu tai Gojira and its radically different export version King Kong vs. Godzilla would offer alternate endings to give each monster a victory in their home territories. Actually, Kong was clear winner in each cut. From 1933, the giant gorilla had been at least an antihero while the radioactive dinosaur had yet to mellow into a protector of the planet.
Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse franchise rebooted the rivals with Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island (2017). From the outset, a new Kong/Godzilla clash was teased, though the MCU-like overall plan wobbled in another preliminary bout, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).
Indie genre auteur Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die, 2010; You’re Next, 2013) has already dabbled in franchise filmmaking with the reboots Blair Witch (2016) and Death Note (2017). Here, while coping with an enormous amount of CGI, Wingard deals with the deep legacy of both star monsters, but also picks up threads (notably Millie Bobby Brown’s Godzilla-boosting character) from the earlier films. At this level of studio filmmaking, there’s a sense that a project doesn’t need a director so much as a referee – but Wingard brings an honest enthusiasm and the production doesn’t repeat the mistake of giving us too little of the real stars.
A Monsterverse trademark is casting massively overqualified leading ladies and slightly-less-than-alpha leading men. Rebecca Hall gamely follows Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Brie Larsen and Vera Farmiga as an imperilled egghead, while it’s left to children (Kaylee Hottle as a deaf orphan) to interact with monsters who are basically large, tantrum-prone kids.
Like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Tom Hiddleston and still-aboard-but-demoted Kyle Chandler before him, Alexander Skarsgård performs feats of lesser heroics but has to stand around in the climax while the real heroes smash their four-hundred-foot foe. There are a few funny lines, some bytes of emotion and a lot of throwaway ideas, but that’s all hurried through to get to the main event. The human villains are squashed like bugs as the inhuman nemesis comes online.
With the soap-opera fat trimmed, Godzilla vs. Kong offers a spectacle of alpha masculine devastation – a key moment has Kong and Godzilla roar at each other in a clinch – with a wealth of pulp references. A visit to ‘Hollow Earth’ recalls Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series, source of At the Earth’s Core (1976), down to some Burroughsian winged chimeras.
In a plot structure seen in Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice, a grudge-match between stars is set aside when a bigger threat (taken from Toho’s backlist, reimagined with a splendidly fiendish biomechanical design) requires they combine forces. The selection of Hong Kong as an arena for battle means a lot of buildings edged with colourful neon crumble as kaiju scrap among them.
The giant engines of destruction are nevertheless appealing protagonists. This battle is just a big playground roughhouse, replete with pro wrestling-style drama as downed combatants summon strength to fight back and bust out their own signature incredible moves.
By Kim Newman
Godzilla: King of the Monsters review: ho-hum humans hobble magical beasts
By Kim Newman
Kong: Skull Island review – a roaring pulp mash-up
By Kim Newman
Top trumps: the giants of Japan’s monster movies
By Matthew Thrift
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy