‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Raises the Question: Is Nonsense the New Normal? (Column)

Owen Gleiberman
·6-min read

By now, a great many people have seen “Godzilla vs. Kong,” and what a lot of them seem to agree on — even many who like it — is that the movie makes almost no sense. That’s nothing new. A number of noteworthy blockbusters have had issues in the how-exactly-does-this-parse? department, like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” or the “Transformers” films or “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” What’s new about the loopy, yes-we-really-have-stopped-making-sense quality of “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the chortling shrug of approval with which it’s been met. Most of what happens in the film is so defiant in its lack of purpose — Kong will go to the Hollow Earth; so that his ride through a cut-rate “Avatar” landscape of primeval wonder will distract you; long enough to keep you from asking what he’s doing there — that the film has been greeted as a knowingly cheeky act of storytelling insanity (or is it inanity?).

I like things that are so nutty they’re fun, but “Godzilla vs. Kong,” I’m sorry, is not the entertaining kind of crazy. It’s the ponderous and deflating kind, like David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” or a Donald Trump “Make America Kneel to Me Again” fundraising speech. I’m glad, for the sake of cinema’s future, that the movie has been a decisive hit in theaters, but the impulse to shoehorn “GvK” into the category of giddy cuckoo-clock mishegas may be the latest evolution in fan decadence — a desperation to be entertained masquerading as a throw-up-your-hands appreciation for top-heavy, slovenly kitsch. It’s enough to make you wonder if this is, in fact, a preview of the multiverse future.

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Since we’re talking about Godzilla, it’s worth noting that the original kaiju films took a deliriously half-baked approach to storytelling logic. That was part of their shaggy anti-aesthetic charm. Godzilla, breathing electric fire, would come out of the ocean and stomp Tokyo because…it was time for Godzilla to come out of the ocean and stomp Tokyo. The very arbitrariness of the destruction he caused expressed something: the out-of-the-blue apocalyptic horror of the atomic bomb. And was he foe or, in a weird way, friend? That he was both — a beast to fear, and also to revere — emerged from how the Toho Studios films of the Shōwa era were engineered to replicate their own grandiosity.

My favorite of them, the 1964 “Godzilla vs. the Thing” (the Japanese title was “Mothra vs. Godzilla”), often had the logic of an acid trip and featured such hypnotic oddities as the twin fairies who spoke in unison, to which the character of Jai (Kaylee Hottle), the deaf orphan in “Godzilla vs. Kong” who communicates with Kong in sign language, may be an homage. Yet the whole fakey poetic allure of the original “Godzilla” films is that even when they were exuberantly bad, they felt more like handmade schlock than incoherent corporate product.

By the time “Godzilla vs. Kong” reaches its climactic sequence, in which the two title monsters thrash through the gleaming skyscrapers of Hong Kong as they attempt to destroy each other, with the skeletal robot Mechagodzilla elevating the orgy of annihilation into a threesome, the movie delivers the escape into oversize vandalism we want. The last 25 minutes sends the audience out happy. It won me over, too — by the time the end credits rolled, and I was walking out of the theater, I found myself forgiving the previous 90 minutes, or maybe enabling them. I got my epic blowout monster fix. I’d made the requisite transition from boredom to eye-popped.

Up until then, though, I was actively bored. The human characters, from Alexander Skarsgård’s idealistic geologist to Rebecca Hall’s sedulous anthropologist to Brian Tyree Henry’s nattering conspiracy theorist to Demián Bichir’s mustache-twirling CEO — I honestly can’t believe that four actors I like this much could add up to so little in the way of charm or dramatic interest. They come off as placeholders. If you think back to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla,” it was basically a gargantuan B-movie, but the human characters there, led by Bryan Cranston and Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe, seem like the cast of “Hamlet” by comparison.

That “Godzilla” film was intended to kick off a MonsterVerse that meant something. With its luminous night battles of ticky-tacky awe, it was enthralling enough to give you an investment in the series. And “Kong: Skull Island” drew on some of the primal whoa factor of the old creature features — not just the original “King Kong” (1933) but the 1961 Ray Harryhausen gem “Mysterious Island” — to invest us, anew, in the saga of Kong. When it comes to giant-monster movies, I’m not a cynic; I’m an overgrown wide-eyed child. “Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island” reignited some of that innocent spirit of big dumb wonder. But two years ago, watching the spectacular-in-a-WTF-way “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” you could feel the film’s connection to those previous two movies withering on the vine. And “Godzilla vs. Kong” seems more or less to abandon all that came before. It’s supposed to be the culmination of the series, but instead it feels like the filmmakers just started all over with the directive: “Fill space.”

Yet maybe that disconnection is now built into how multiverse movies work. They pretend to be as organically unified as a TV series. But they’re spaced so far apart from each other that, as corporate priorities shift, they wind up lurching in different directions. Just look at the last three “Star Wars” films. “The Force Awakens” was a hermetic package of “A New Hope” nostalgia; “The Last Jedi” sprawled and metastasized into half a dozen plots, and seemed to be making up its rules as it went along; “The Rise of Skywalker,” much as I liked it, played as a rousing act of damage control. There’s no doubt that “Godzilla vs. Kong” makes good on its promise: It shows us Godzilla vs. Kong. Yet it does so in a way that, like the series itself, feels less grand, less coherent and more stupefyingly random than the sum of its parts. If this is the new standard in blockbuster aesthetics, then Godzilla help us.

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