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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews "Godzilla vs. Kong"

Godzilla Vs. Kong
Godzilla Vs. Kong

DD: Normally, Godzilla Vs. Kong is the sort of big screen special effects slugfest that draws all sorts of folks to the biggest screens they can find for Easter: kids, cretins, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But Warner Bros. has responded to the pandemic by collapsing the window between theaters -- where open -- and home screens on HBO. It says something about the film that how this holiday weekend shakes out is more exciting than how the critters do. Our film critic Harlan Jacobson sits down with the monsters.

HJ: Is Godzilla Vs. Kong enough to bring people back to theaters? The fourth in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse franchise, the film’s box-office topped $120 million when it opened last week overseas. It’s nominally directed by Adam Wingard, who’s made a 15-year career of directing pretty much nothing worth seeing. He was in the very incapable hands of five writers -- two script, three story -- some of whom have the previous Godzilla: King of Monsters in common, with a story this time by Terry Rossio, who has a credit on Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin and Shrek, and who oughtta at least know better. Oh hell, I’d have taken the money and run, too.

The $150 million budget has ciphers instead of characters including Kong, Alexander Skarsgaard as Lind, the Handsome Guy, and Rebecca Hall as the Concerned Scientist. They need Kong to save the Power Source, wherever and whatever that is. At first, this means staying out of the way of two 60 foot pissed-off prehistoric heavyweights with history between them now laying waste to everything starting with the Navy, killer Condors, you name it. The real hero, of course, is a 10-year-old girl, Jia (Kaylee Hottle)—which at least suggests the money guys are paying attention to who’s happening out there. Jia is the daughter of the Concerned Scientist. She’s deaf, she’s one of a half-dozen standard Spielberg knockoffs, including the obligatory rogue teens and scared black sidekick, but Jia’s saving grace is that she communicates with Kong in American Sign language and so keeps Kong in the loop.

This makeshift wannabe nuclear family of Handsome Guy, Concerned Scientist and American Sign language kid head the team lugging Kong around by barge all over the world, from a giant fake jungle dome in Pensacola to Antarctica for a little R&R and on to Hong Kong, the scene of the final slugfest with Godzilla and the true enemy. Which is not Godzilla.

This is where a little Kong history with pretty blondes comes in:

Jessica Lange in 1976 remake of "King Kong"
Jessica Lange in 1976 remake of "King Kong"

Jessica Lange, whose career took off in Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong, Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s 2005 re-remake and definitely Fay Wray in the 1933 original, emotionally sided with Kong against the greed of mankind and the movie industry. And they lived in an age when if someone went ape over how you looked that was a good thing. Things have changed, and for starters, Kong seems to agree he’s on our side in a battle for the mysterious Power Source.

Our friend Kong starts off in pitched battle with the blue-flame spitting Godzilla, his old enemy from the first 1962 Toho Studios matchup. But the boys who wrote this mess grabbed the climax more from a tag team World Wrestling matchup. It feels more like a fantasy nod to Hulk Hogan, Junkyard Dog and Haystacks Calhoun. Somedays you just never know who you’re gonna end up in bed with that night.

There have been those who have examined Kong in the past for a racial subtext – recall the climactic swoon and die scene when Beauty killed the beast atop the new Empire State Building in the original 1933 film:

Fay Wray stars in 1933 original "King Kong"
Fay Wray stars in 1933 original "King Kong"

Godzilla is a post WWII Japanese creation with an anti-nuclear subtext. In this re-meeting of the two, Legendary Entertainment has had its creative team invoke the by now safe bet that the new bad guys in town are the American techno corporate bosses. Demian Bechir doesn’t break a sweat as the devil-may-care Walter Simmons, the CEO of Apex Cybernetic Corp, maker of Mega-Godzilla, a Silicon Valley drone piloted by a vaguely Asian johnny on a joystick—i.e. your kid if he continues his lackluster performance in school while pursuing state of the art gaming skills. Bad Boss Simmons can afford a certain affability, as he lets his Mega-Godzilla loose on the world to do all his blue-flame talking for him.

Stuff that is supposed to be funny in Godzilla Vs Kong ain't: It opens with Kong on Skull Island, waking up from a frat boy like stupor and heading to the waterfall for a morning shower, while the soundtrack begins the first of its many winks at being cute with “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea” sung by Bobby Vinton.

Blowing ships up is what this franchise is about, satisfying the lust young men have to blow ships up—which they do here plenty. Most of this is green screen, but the credits do note a model of Hong Kong, with tons of neon lighting framing the model skyscrapers so Kong, Godzilla and we can see what they’re stomping on. Oh the humanity! Well, actually no one seems to die in the collapsing piles of junk, except for the bad guys in the end, of course. For a while I got lost wondering if Godzilla was mistakenly incensed that Hong Kong was named after his nemesis, which is the kind of blind alley you wander down flat out on your back at home, with your dog levitating three feet above the coffee table every time the subwoofer blows up.

Godzilla Vs. Kong ain’t the reason I long for big screen theatres with audiences to reopen. These two runaway pets can be missed on better home screens everywhere. I want to see Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades in a theater in Russian with subtitles. It’s set in an obscure Russian village in 1962 where the workers go on strike and get massacred by the KGB. Which convinces the town by terror and repetition that it didn’t see what it saw. Now that seems more like a contemporary monster movie to me, even in gorgeous black and white. Especially in gorgeous black and white. You can find it from Neon streaming on Hulu.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.