Saturday, June 3, 2023

Review: Godzilla versus Kong, the 2021 remake


Review and analysis by Joe Gibson

On March 31st, 2021, Godzilla vs Kong opened jointly in theaters and on streaming in an admittedly uphill struggle.  It was late in the pandemic, and even though the trailer two months prior had garnered great interest, the earlier failure of Christopher Nolan's Tenet to "save movie theaters" threatened GvK's chances in theaters.


At the same time, HBO Max had not spread internationally, so the film would depend on its theatrical gross.  And of course the previous film in Legendary's Monsterverse, Godzilla King Of The Monsters, had underperformed, both critically and financially.  Even against those odds, Godzilla vs Kong opened to $32 million, a record in the pandemic, beating out Wonder Woman 1984's opening weekend of $16.7 million and going on to gross $470.1 million total.

 Positive word of mouth and initial positive critical reception indeed helped to find this movie its audience, but even as the ever-present critiques of kaiju eiga, plot and characters, trickled into reviews, it did not hinder the film's historic theatrical run.  The message seemed clear: in the shaky and uncertain world, people wanted escapism. The world wanted something less complicated than Tenet, more inoffensive than Wonder Woman 1984.  Millions of people lined up to see "big monkey punch big lizard" and so (debatably) saved the movie theater. As its sequel Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is going to release next year, it is worth revisiting Godzilla Vs Kong to see how well it holds up two years later.


Godzilla Vs Kong has two open plotlines that intersect at various points in the film before converging at the end.  Kong acts out a version of his classic story, where opportunistic humans remove him from his home and he defends a girl with whom he shares a special bond from monsters, with the added twists of the looming threat of Godzilla and lingering hope that he might find a new home with others like him.  Meanwhile, Godzilla has seemingly turned against humanity, attacking a suspicious cybernetics company, which inspires an intrepid trio to investigate the company and vindicate the King of The Monsters.


It turns out that said cybernetics company has resurrected Godzilla's archenemy King Ghidorah into Mechagodzilla, which stresses him out.  It might seem from this description that the film does not justify the title, but that is not one of the problems with the plot.  The movie plays up Godzilla's territoriality and Kong's stubbornness to a believable degree with their first ocean battle.


After their plotlines diverge, they coincide through the harvesting of Hollow Earth energy perturbing Godzilla, causing him to drill into the Hollow Earth throne room, destroying Kong's new home.  Godzilla destroying all the progress of Kong's arc is fascinating, and it leaves Kong with only one option: to fight Godzilla with an old axe, the last remnant of his lost family.  The issue with this structure is that the Godzilla and Kong sides of the story are not exactly equal in quality.


Kong's supporting cast consists of Alexander Skarsgard's Nathan Lind, Rebecca Hall's Ilene Andrews, Kaylee Hottle's Jia, and Eiza Gonzalez's Maia Simmons.  Demian Bichir as Walter Simmons and Shun Oguri as Ren Serizawa appear in both the Kong and Godzilla halves to serve as connective tissue across the movie.  It is easily apparent how much the focus of this plotline is to pay homage to past King Kong films, but this part of the movie is also very innovative for the character of Kong: he is even more expressive than in Son of Kong or Kong: Skull Island, he continues to use improvised tools but also can find or build actual weapons now, and his human companion is a deaf girl with whom he can speak sign language.


The deaf girl Jia makes Kong's story even more tragic for being the last remaining of the Iwi people, the civilization that this Kong used to protect in order to find meaning and quell loneliness.  Ilene Andrews also cares for Jia as a surrogate mother, a subversion of the Jack and Ann dynamic.  Maia Simmons is a very interesting character, being a mostly unlikeable and unpleasant addition to the party that betrays the group and suffers a karmic death for it.  In that regard, she seems similar to Captain Helstrom from Son of Kong; she is slightly more humanized by her concern for Jia early on in the movie and her professionalism in order to run a sizable part of the company.  However, by far, the most interesting of these human characters is Nathan Lind, who is the lead specialist on the mission to bring Kong to Hollow Earth.

 In one of the film's many "Easter Eggs," we first see Nathan Lind in the basement of "Denham University" in Philadelphia.  Of course, Carl Denham was the principal character of the original King Kong as well as its sequel Son of Kong, the person most responsible for stripping Kong of his home and his life.  It is a great nod to the audience that this is in fact a King Kong film, but the movie also takes on new depth with the interpretation that this "Easter Egg" is a clue that Lind is functionally the Denham of this movie.

Carl Denham or a stand-in of him is generally present in every King Kong story one way or another, but the original is still the most morally complex.  He is a showman manipulating an animal to his own ends, but he is still a good person who shows remorse for his actions in the end.  One layer of subtext deeper, and he is the colonizing white man invading a foreign land, taking away the indigenous people's king to put on stage, the king that is shot down when he tries to escape servitude.  But Carl Denham does not actually have malice in carrying out this role and is left to witness the consequences of his horrible mistakes.  Meanwhile, Mr. Tako from the original King Kong vs Godzilla is a parody of a corrupt company executive, and Fred Wilson from King Kong 1976 is merely a corrupt company executive.  Jack Black's version of Denham in King Kong 2005 is more obsessive and self destructive and less sympathetic but still carries the same plot role.


Son Of Kong and King Kong 1976 represent the two extremes of the spectrum that this character exists on: one where he is fundamentally good and redeemable and one where he is fundamentally bad and irredeemable.  Son Of Kong follows Denham evading the numerous lawsuits and other legal consequences after bringing King Kong to America, where he joins Captain Englehorn's crew again, eventually returning to Skull Island looking for buried treasure with Captain Helstrom, the man who gave him the original map to Skull Island and Hilda Peterson, a kindhearted circus girl who has compassion towards monkeys.  Hilda, Englehorn, the cook Charlie and even Little Kong are all good influences on Denham that motivate him to improve over the course of the movie.

Meanwhile, in King Kong 1976, Fred Wilson is seeking oil from the newly discovered Skull Island.  He is framed as a quite stupid man, who despite becoming fast friends with the environmentalist crusader Jack Prescott, descends into villainy by kidnapping Kong after being separated from Prescott for a while.  Wilson traps Kong to put up a show as an advertisement for his company Petrox, but Kong escapes and crushes Wilson underfoot.  He does not even get to witness Kong's fall from the towers.


I say all this because Lind falls more on the Son Of Kong side of this scale.  Both are sympathetic from having fallen from grace prior.  In Son Of Kong, Denham faces lawsuits for the Kong situation.  Meanwhile, Lind is a discredited scientist, following his own brother's death trying to enter the Hollow Earth.  Lind is actually very opportunistic and puts Kong in danger selfishly to vindicate his own discredited scientific hypotheses, but over the course of the movie, circumstance gradually forces him into situations where he has to protect Kong until he ultimately risks his life to take responsibility for his role in Kong's defeat against Godzilla.

 At first, Lind does not allow himself to empathize with Kong, because he sees Kong as a tool, evident with his suggestion to ease up on the sedative so that Kong will be able to carry out his task upon arriving in Antarctica. He has no good answer for what will happen if Kong does not want to serve them until one presents itself in the form of Jia's communication with Kong, at which point Lind constantly presses Andrews to force Jia to tell Kong to do what they need.  By that point, it is too late to oppose Lind's quick solutions, because he has put the team in perilous enough positions to justify his quick solutions.


Actually, that is another important facet of Lind's character.  Both he and Walter Simmons do not stick to a plan and instead think on their feet, thriving on crazy ideas.  Until of course their luck runs out, at which point Lind takes responsibility for his mistakes and Simmons does not, narratively leading to the redemption of one and downfall of the other.

Interestingly for Lind's character arc, there are also instances where the tough circumstances necessitate that he do something to protect Kong.  Starting with the Tasman sea set piece, Kong is sedated and chained, while Godzilla swims over to them and capsizes the vessel.  Lind has previously been resistant to releasing Kong's restraints under any conditions but swims through the now submerged vessel to unchain Kong.  It is certainly a start for protecting Kong, but he had literally no other option.  With no one in Godzilla's way, he would destroy both of them and for the first time in the movie, Lind and Kong's fates are intertwined.


The film’s commentary track clarifies the intent of the scene as such by showing Lind and Kong screaming underwater at the same time.  Later on, after the team makes it through the Hollow Earth gravity inversion, Kong falls right past him, and their eyes meet.  Lind is once again aware of the risks he is putting Kong through and seems uncomfortable.

The next major step in Lind's character arc is when the pair of snakelike Warbats attack.  Kong kills one but the other ensnares him.  Lind has more options here.  If Kong dies, then the mission is over, but Lind is no longer in direct danger.  And there is even the chance Kong could win this fight on his own, but Lind does not wait to see, instead firing on the Warbat to give Kong the upper hand. Once the exploration team reaches the Throne Room, Lind takes in the sights with the others and also does not protest the Apex droid harvesting a sample of the Hollow Earth energy.  That is why he is there, after all.


The attack of the Hellhawks progresses matters however.  Maia Simmons makes it away, but one Hellhawk menaces Andrews and Jia.  They have derided him as a coward, but they have also trusted him, and, going along with Son Of Kong's Denham redemption story, they are his good influences to redeem him from his mistakes.  So, Lind distracts the Hellhawk.  Once they escape and watch Kong fight against Godzilla, Lind also sees the disappointment in Jia upon Kong's defeat.



Just as Denham before him, Lind witnesses a collapsed dying Kong but this time has the maturity and quick thinking to take responsibility for removing Kong from his island and moving him into confrontations with Godzilla.  But Lind's maneuver here is of the highest risk and lowest benefit to himself yet.  He has to detonate the HEAV's engine manually on Kong's chest to restart his heart.  The mission is finished, and Kong is already dying, but Lind has to make things right even if he cannot get away from the defibrillating HEAV explosion fast enough.  Luckily, he can, and he finds purpose monitoring Kong in the Hollow Earth at the very end of the movie.  This is a very interesting new spin on the Denham role in Kong's story that I believe has been underappreciated.

Kong's expressive nature and agency in this story grants him a lot of memorable scenes, but arguably the most impactful part of Kong's story in this movie is his final battle against Godzilla.  It actually adapts the end of Kong's original story very cleverly to a story where he is fighting Godzilla.  First of all, whereas Kong wound up in New York originally because humans stripped him away from his home, he climbs to Hong Kong because Godzilla has just taken his new home, the last thing he had left, away from him.  The ebb and flow of his battle against Godzilla is compelling; Kong is perpetually the underdog but has a chance up until he knocks Godzilla out and loses the axe.  From that point on their conflict, it plays out surprisingly close to Kong's confrontation with the biplanes.




Kong climbs high up onto a building that even resembles the Empire State Building to jump down on Godzilla, which turns out to be a massive mistake.  The destination is the same but with a slightly different journey to get there.  The next few seconds are an onslaught of attacks by Godzilla that thoroughly trounce Kong, beating him near to death.  After an effort to get back up, he falls in roughly the same position he does in the original story.  I have seen criticism of this movie and the Monsterverse as a whole for never bringing King Kong to New York or even America, but that is a superficial way to pay homage to the original compared to what the filmmakers went with.


Director Adam Wingard was definitely aware of the similarities he was invoking; by his admission, the slowing heartbeats of Kong that Jia feels moments later is an homage to the ending of the 1976 King Kong.  Here, it actually makes more sense, given that Jia has felt vibrations previously in the movie.  According to other statements by Wingard, he still heavily opposed killing off Kong permanently here, and this seems to explain why the film redeemed its "Denham" as it did.


The segments pertaining to investigating Godzilla's rampage are less inspired but also include some interesting stuff.  Wingard has stated that while the Team Kong segments are meant to explore the past, the bright neon colors and technological advancement present in Team Godzilla's scenes are supposed to represent the future.  Millie Bobby Brown headlines these scenes as the returning character Madison Russell, uncovering the secrets of the sinister Apex Cybernetics with the help of her friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) and a paranoid conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry).  Walter Simmons, as the larger scope villain of the movie, slowly reveals his plot and the true purpose of his underling Ren Serizawa: to create and pilot Mechagodzilla in order to provoke, destroy and replace Godzilla.


Despite being a fun subplot evocative of a similar set-up in the original Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla, this part of the film incurs more substantial criticism.  For one, most reviews indicate these characters to be bland, with Madison specifically labeled a weak protagonist and Ren Serizawa specifically singled out as being very underdeveloped and wasted.  The erratic rampages of Godzilla at the occurrence of Mechagodzilla's inexplicable blinking eyeball is also a very difficult puzzle to solve in regards to this film's plot.  Upon a rewatch, however, there is slightly more nuance to these issues.

Madison is indeed rather uninspired as the lead, and the uselessness of Josh does not improve matters, but Bernie is a rather compelling addition to the series.  He takes after comedic characters in the Godzilla series, especially Kazuma Aoki from Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, whose bizarre interests annoyed his more straitlaced coworkers and who also broke away from his occupational responsibilities to investigate Godzilla's motives for attacking.  However in this film, Bernie has a concrete motive for his undercover research into Apex Cybernetics, that being the death of his wife (expanded in the novelization to be likely at the hands of Apex themselves).  Because of Bernie's personal stake in the arc and equal screen presence to Madison, he is debatably the actual protagonist of this arc instead.  What is interesting about Bernie and Madison's dynamic is that regardless of which one is the protagonist, the other is structurally their mentor.


 Madison upholds Bernie as a valuable source of wisdom and information, as we see through her subscription to his podcast, and Bernie, after an initial "refusal to the call" accepts Madison's mission by virtue of her connection to Emma Russell (a controversial eco terrorist and Titan advocate from the previous movie).  Bernie also ends up learning how to move on from his wife through bringing down Apex with Madison's help as well as moving on to his next lead, asking Madison's father about the Monarch base near Roswell, because of their forged friendship.


There are certain scenes where the movie seems to be deliberately making it ambiguous who the focus is between Madison and Bernie.  When they first enter the Skull Crawler sacrifice pit, Bernie explains the situation and leads the children through, but the large Skull Crawler chases Madison.  Likewise, when Walter Simmons confronts them towards the end, the scene begins with Bernie stating his purpose but ends with Simmons identifying Madison as the important figure.  Conversely, when they discover Ghidorah's skull, Bernie relays the relevant information, and Madison's contributions to the scene are as minimal as identifying that there is a pilot and not who that pilot is.


That is only significant for this analysis, because she should know the pilot, Ren Serizawa, and that would have increased her emotional stake in the story.  Godzilla King Of The Monsters established that the Russells and the Serizawas were close family friends, to the point where Ishiro Serizawa, Ren's father, often repeated the same joke to Andrew Russell, Madison's brother.  Madison would definitely recognize Ren, and the only reason the movie would ignore that fact is so as to not overshadow Bernie's development.  Of course, that leads naturally into the problem of Ren Serizawa's wasted potential in this movie.

To understand exactly how much potential Ren Serizawa had as a character in this franchise, it is important to note how much the Monsterverse has borrowed from the 90s Gamera trilogy.

In both Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe and Godzilla 2014, the title monster awakens and fights multiple of an ancient and natural enemy (the birdlike Gyaos for Gamera the turtle and the insectoid MUTOs for Godzilla).  In Gamera 2: Advent of Legion and Godzilla King Of The Monsters, the title character goes through a cycle of death and rebirth and gains new powers to defeat an extraterrestrial menace.  In so doing, Gamera had to break his connection to humanity, and, at the end of Godzilla King Of The Monsters, one of the characters hypothesizes that Godzilla is only on their side "for now." This is because the final installment of the Gamera trilogy did a very similar thing to Godzilla vs Kong, in teasing the audience that Gamera could have been the bad guy; Gamera 3: The Incomplete Struggle leaned into it far more heavily.  


There was a new protagonist, a bitter young girl named Ayana (above) who lost her parents as collateral damage all the way back in the final battle of Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe.  The film entrenches the viewer in Ayana's perspective as she nurtures a new monster named Irys that has the potential to destroy Gamera.  Gamera himself looks much meaner and cares less about preventing collateral damage with the reemergence of the Gyaos as a worldwide swarm.  Irys grows in power as well as from Ayana's hatred of Gamera, and even though he tries to consume her, and ancient art indicates Irys and Gamera to be enemies, it is not really clear until the end which is the hero and which is the villain.


This is where fans feel that Ren Serizawa's potential is squandered.  The novelization for Godzilla King Of The Monsters introduced through Ishiro Serizawa's dying thoughts that he had an estranged son that he would be leaving by sacrificing himself for Godzilla.  Every other change in that film's novelization was to tie it into the tie-in comics and tighten or clarify continuity, so this was clearly setting up the next film.


At the same time, allegedly, Mechagodzilla was a part of Godzilla vs Kong before Legendary even hired Wingard.  From putting all these pieces together, it is likely that Ren had a more central role (in fact in some of Wingard's previous drafts, Ren had a larger role and even survived at the end).  A film exploring the grief of a son who blames Godzilla for the loss of his father as he creates an even worse mechanical monster to replace him sounds very compelling and, compared to the version of Ren Serizawa that we got, better.  Even so, it is unfair to examine a character based on a movie that did not happen. In the finished version of Godzilla vs Kong, Ren Serizawa has roughly four scenes, juxtaposing different aspects of his nature in an interesting way, and I can analyze those.

Serizawa intelligent, cautious, insecure, sadistic

Ren Serizawa is intelligent, cautious, insecure and sadistic.  From his first scene moodily watching Godzilla, it would initially seem that he is remembering his father, but, given that the film deleted any reference to his familial relations, there is another explanation.  Towards the end of the movie, he and Walter argue about the risks of piloting Mechagodzilla and attracting a rampaging Godzilla.  Walter states that Godzilla has been coming for them ever since they first built Mechagodzilla, indicating that they are not framing him or intentionally provoking him; he just knows about the robot somehow and is trying to destroy it.


Ren is clearly cognizant of risks and demonstrates a certain level of problem solving by coming to correct inferences from Lind's vague statements in their recruitment of the scientist.  It is very likely then that, in the theatrical version of this movie, Ren was just trying to figure out why Godzilla was attacking them, because, in that version of the film, they were not intentionally provoking him to do so.  Walter merely wants to escape in the helicopter, but Ren takes a moment to try and satisfy his curiosity and mitigate the risks.

Another important moment as to discerning Ren's motivations comes from the scene when Mechagodzilla fails from low power.  Walter states confidently that his daughter will find the Hollow Earth energy signal, that he has faith in her, and Ren lowers his eyes as he hears it.  That shot communicates that Ren still is affected by his estrangement from his father and that he seeks the kind of family Walter and Maia have at Apex.  Perhaps, that is even why Ren is there in the first place and even a way that Simmons had manipulated him.  Walter has a distinct hold on Ren in this version.  Whereas, in an earlier draft, Ren hired a hitman to kill Simmons so he could take full control of Mechagodzilla, Ren listens to Simmons and pilots Mechagodzilla after the energy upgrade despite the immense risks he lays out moments before.  That loyalty even as blindingly dangerous hints to deeper motivations; admittedly the movie did not explore that enough in regards to this character.

In the Godzilla vs Kong commentary track, the director, Adam Wingard, explains that he felt the Ren Serizawa character ended up underwritten and so, he decided to cut certain scenes and keep a sort of mystery surrounding him.  That is why in the finished film, we get a very simple image of a sickeningly wicked grin on his face as he uses Mechagodzilla to kill the Skull Crawler and nothing more.  Still, that is more than enough to get a good view of this character.  Smiling as he tortures an animal to death is such a visceral image that communicates so much about his character's sadism and contempt for Titans.  Despite any other misgivings about this character, that is such efficient imagery.  Up to this point in the movie, there was a sufficient mystery surrounding the character's actual role, so when it turns out he is there to pilot Mechagodzilla, and the same scene shows his sadistic intentions, it is a very powerful image.


Kong: Skull Island established the Skull Crawlers to be utterly detestable monsters, and so having Ren take so much glee in destroying them transfers some of that depravity to him.  In that light, his other traits flesh him out, since his sadism seldom overpowers his cautiousness in the version we have.  I feel I have to relay all of this because the few reviewers that appreciate Ren refer to him as a misunderstood "hero" for constructing Mechagodzilla that just went about it poorly.  The Skull Crawler scene seems to prove otherwise.

Another thing I appreciate about Godzilla vs Kong is its soundtrack.  It is not as impressive as Bear McCreary's use of the Ifukube tracks in the previous film, but Tom Holkenborg crafted a familiar yet distinct Godzilla theme, and the tracks corresponding to Kong's Throne Room and the Hong Kong battle are very memorable.

Certain aspects of the plot are contrived, but the film actually makes a lot more sense upon a rewatch.  With certain details in mind, it is clear that Mechagodzilla's eyeball alerting Godzilla to its existence is not a part of Simmons' plan, nor Ren's nor Maia's.  Because Apex is harnessing the psionic capabilities of King Ghidorah's skulls, and the mech is not online during the Pensacola sequence to connect to the satellite, only Ghidorah could have called Godzilla there, and that is quite interesting.  The consciousness of Ghidorah has waited until most of its new mechanical body has been shipped from Pensacola to activate and taunt Godzilla with its existence.  Godzilla, quite exhaustively, hunted down and killed Ghidorah in the previous film, so for him to sense the creature returning and be unable to find it is the most stressful situation possible.  Consequently, he is vicious against Kong, not having the time to deal with a potential challenge in the Tasman sea battle and misconstruing Kong for an additional threat when he charges his axe.


Godzilla seems to enjoy fighting Kong, from his laugh after hitting Kong with his atomic breath, justifying why he lets it go on for so long when the stakes are high as they are.  Further evidence that it is in fact Ghidorah controlling Mechagodzilla's eye in Pensacola comes when the Hollow Earth energy overrides Ren's control and switches consciousnesses to Ghidorah's; the eyes flicker with energy. In light of that, there do not seem to be any outright holes in the plot of this movie; just contrivances.


For instance, it is very lucky that Apex has a transcontinental shipping system, and it is also very lucky that the Throne Room is directly beneath Hong Kong so that Godzilla can drill there.  It is forgivable because this luck is leveraged as something Simmons depends on, and it is a luck that eventually runs out for the character.  There is also nothing that strictly prevents any of these scenes from being possible in the universe of the film, except Godzilla and Kong fighting on an aircraft carrier that would weigh less than either of them individually.


There are also technical issues from the movie's production.  After Godzilla King Of The Monsters underperformed, Wingard changed the story several times, essentially stitching the movie together from different takes.  It is mostly smooth because he had shot five hours of footage to work with, but because of the scene shuffling, Bernie and Josh are wearing different shirts in some shots than they should be.  Some of the dialogue also sounds slightly off, as if from two different takes, and Kong's cgi model infamously clips through a couple of buildings in the final fight.


There do not seem to be any noticeable cg issues in the Tasman Sea fight, though that is likely because, as Wingard explains on the commentary track, the crew built the ship set twice (once right side up and once capsized to fill with water) in order to more convincingly integrate the action.  Overall, from the creativity of the Hong Kong battle sequences, and the mixture of practical and computer generated effects in the Tasman Sea fight, this movie gives the sense of being choreographed the way that Willis O'Brien, Eiji Tsuburaya, and Koichi Kawakita would have done it in their Kong and Godzilla films if they had access to the same technology.


In conclusion, Godzilla Vs Kong is a very enjoyable movie that respects the history of both characters and constructs a simple plot around them with engaging characters and a decent soundtrack.  The fights are the main draw, and for good reason given how impressive they really are, but it is unfair to discount the deeper elements present in the film.  All that said, I hesitate to call it one of the very best Godzilla or Kong movies ever made, even if it is a personal favorite.  There are preceding films with stronger thematic messages, more poignant conflict resolutions and stronger characters, but this film's strengths are still unique to it.  The film has made enough innovations for Kong to elevate him into new stories, and Godzilla remains a great interpretation of himself, but I look forward primarily to the ways that Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire can use what this movie set up to progress the story, characters and universe of these films next year.