To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a giant monkey punching a giant lizard is just a giant monkey punching a giant lizard.
One of the recurring motifs of the larger Godzilla franchise has been the idea of the eponymous monster as an ambassador for the environment, with Godzilla vs. Hedorah even released in the United States under the helpful title of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. As such, it feels appropriate that the release of Godzilla vs. Kong should prove in its own way that nature is healing. The film is a box office success, opening to $70 million in China and looking at a $48 million five-day opening stateside.
This success comes as a welcome relief to a beleaguered theater industry — not only in the context of the disruption that the pandemic has caused, but also with the film premiering simultaneously on HBO Max at no additional charge. It helps that the critical reception to Godzilla vs. Kong has been warm, bordering on enthusiastic. At the time of writing, it sits at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, tied with or ahead of other “MonsterVerse” films like Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
What’s particularly interesting about Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong is the efficiency of the film. Godzilla vs. Kong is the shortest entry in the series, clocking in neatly under two hours including credits. It often seems like the movie has been pared down to the bone, with actors like Lance Reddick showing up to stand at the edge of the frame and deliver the occasional stray line, as the movie builds swiftly and cleanly towards the title bout.
Wingard deserves considerable credit here. He knows what the audience wants. Godzilla vs. Kong wastes no time before getting to a sequence of Godzilla destroying the city of Pensacola, Florida. By the 40-minute mark, Godzilla and Kong are throwing down for the first time. The movie’s third act is an extended 45-minute monster wrestling match set amid Hong Kong, in which a giant lizard breathes atomic energy at a giant monkey swinging a magical axe. Godzilla vs. Kong knows what it is.
More to the point, Godzilla vs. Kong knows what it isn’t. There’s surprisingly little theme or subtext to this gigantic monster mash-up, particularly in the context of the two iconic central characters. After all, for most of their cinematic careers, both Godzilla and Kong have served as the avatars of bigger ideas. In the original Gojira, Godzilla was a walking manifestation of the devastating potential of atomic power. In the original King Kong, Kong was spectacle itself, manifested on screen.
Naturally, what those monsters stand for has evolved and changed over the decades. This makes sense. After all, the meaning of words drifts over time, to the point that now some words literally mean the opposite of what they once did. This is evident just looking at the “MonsterVerse” movies. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla treats its monster as a metaphor for the horror of 9/11. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island reimagines Kong as a metaphor for the capacity for war within men’s souls.
Godzilla vs. Kong is striking in its aggressive rejection of the idea of meaning or subtext. Godzilla vs. Kong maybe has a subplot about the horrors of unchecked capitalism represented by the corrupt company Apex Cybernetics and its CEO Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), but even Simmons gets cut off mid-monologue when his monstrous creation “Mechagodzilla” runs amok. “I really wanted to hear the rest of that speech,” complains Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry).
This isn’t necessarily a criticism. After all, it’s easy to bungle themes and subtext. King of the Monsters was a mess of a movie, and at least part of that was down to its efforts to embrace Godzilla as an environmental metaphor without anything coherent to say about the monster. It’s debatable whether it’s better to clumsily nod at big ideas or simply to brush past them completely with an understanding that there was never going to be room to explore them anyway.
More than that, a lot of modern pop culture is aggressively oversignified in ways that add little to the story being told. WandaVision gestured awkwardly at being a story about “loss” but refused to allow any space for the ambiguity or nuance necessary to let that theme breathe. Indeed, as writer Jesse Hawken noted, the theme of “dealing with loss” has become shorthand for any piece of media gesturing at profundity. To mangle another quote, when everything is about loss, nothing will be.
There’s something to be said for Godzilla vs. Kong as part of the wave of movies to bring pop culture out of the pandemic. Escapist entertainment has thrived during the pandemic. The breakout hits of the streaming era weren’t gritty prestige dramas like the reimagining of Perry Mason or I Know This Much Is True, but the memetic absurdity of Tiger King or the trashy reality dating show Love Is Blind. Critic Kathryn VanArendonk called it “Peak Comfort TV.”
This is entirely understandable. It has been a long year. “Pandemic fatigue” has set in. There’s some suggestion that the prolonged stress of lockdowns and the changes to human routines can affect memory retention or attention span. While it’s too early for any long-term studies of the impact of this crisis on the human brain to have been conducted, existing data demonstrates that stress can alter parts of the brain associated with executive function, learning, and memory.
As such, it makes sense that popular taste is skewing towards entertainment that doesn’t demand too much of its audience. It’s notable how little retention there is in conversations about the big “event” media of the pandemic age. When was the last time we talked about films like Soul or Palm Springs or Greyhound or even Hamilton? Everybody talked about shows like Cobra Kai and Bridgerton when they premiered, but they disappeared quickly from the conversation.
There’s a palpable appetite for escapism. Film critic Peter Bart decried the somber mood of this year’s Best Picture nominees, recently asking, “Would Fred Astaire dance in Nomadland?” This is an odd question to ask about an awards body that routinely gives out gold statues to movies about the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery. Bart’s question is more a reflection on the current mood than on the Academy Awards, a body that opted to nominate The Reader ahead of The Dark Knight.
Godzilla vs. Kong doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to say about its world or our world. It lacks even the basic environmental insight of the 1960s and 1970s productions that were often dismissed as “artless and childish,” let alone the bite of Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla. Maybe that’s why audiences and critics are responding to Godzilla vs. Kong with such enthusiasm. In a year that has overwhelmed people with meaning, meaninglessness has an appeal.
Maybe Fred Astaire wouldn’t dance in Nomadland, but sometimes it’s enough to watch a giant monkey smash a giant lizard with a crane.