Four-Walling in the Time of Covid
Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have been making their own version of superhero movies for the past few years, starting with Godzilla in 2014, followed by Kong:Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of Monsters. The last movie teased a battle between the two movie-title monsters, now in the "Monarch" Monsterverse, referred to as "Titans" who usually hang out in the Hollow Earth, until we do something stupid to bring 'em out in the open.
Personally, I think what brought out these movies was Guillermo del Toro's 2013 film of Pacific Rim, where he channeled his love of big monsters duking it out in big modern—vulnerable—cities. The filmed from a cell-phone version of Cloverfield (2008) might have had something to that...inspired as it is by Bong Joon Ho's The Host (2006) and Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005). All that chance to use modern computer graphics and psuedo-technology to make a movie about big monsters fighting appeals to the child (and WWF fan) in all of us. If they didn't make money, they'd disappear into the sea with the setting sun— like Godzilla, but without the buzz-headache from hitting electrical lines.
So, here comes Godzilla vs. Kong, the mash-up of the two tent-poles in the "Monarch" Monsterverse, and "The Top of the Ticket" if one were to see this as an evening of boxing. It is a goofy affair, mixing up traditions of the earlier Toho films (with a much larger scale), a little Jules Verne mixed in for exotica, and a little "zhuzh" from the Marvel Universe to add merchandisable personality, and to keep the fights from seeming like endless slugfests. It also leeches any identifiable humanity out of its story, and, for that matter, The Earth, relegating people to "slow natives" status, and "chutes and ladders" to connect the big fights (of which there are four).
The film has four primary locations: Skull Island—home of King Kong—which is now encircled by a force-field enclosing the "King of the Beasts" from wandering into people's neighborhoods and eating their houses; Pensacola, Florida, where the APEX corporation is engineering A.I. technology with advanced robotics; the Antarctic, where a Monarch research station has made a foray into the "Hollow Earth" deep in the Earth (but wouldn't Skull Island be a more logical entryway, since that's where these beasties have come from?); and Hong Kong, where APEX has a vast engineering facility. With me so far? Good, because you'll get lost soon enough.
At Skull Island, Kong is being studied by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the so-called "Kong Whisperer" who's a bit like Dian Fossey, except that her studies of The Big Guy are facilitated with the help of a native Iwi girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf-mute who can communicate with Kong. She is (evidently) the last Iwi tribesperson, her parents and everybody else being reduced to Skull-walker fodder or Kong toe-jam. Dr. Andrews has adopted the girl, and, as such, the whole movie would make damning evidence at a Child Welfare hearing.
She is approached by Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a former Monarch scientist, and developer of the "Hollow Earth" theory (which conjectures that the Earth doesn't have a core so much as a hollow center, like a chocolate bunny, from whence all the "Titans" have emerged, and evidently has never heard of the term "lava". As we get to witness (sort of) Godzilla has gone "rogue" and attacked the APEX facility in Pensacola, and Lind asks Andrews to use Kong to get a powerful energy source that emanates from the Hollow Earth to use as a weapon against The Lizard, should he ever show up and attack again. "Sounds nuts, Nathan. Even for you," she counters and then agrees to take Kong and Jia, and shackle him to a transport for a trip to Antarctica. "I regret this already," she rehearses for her trial. But, not as much as she's gonna regret it.
What caused Godzilla to attack the APEX plant is unknown to the public, but it might have something to do with a power source that is being developed there under the jurisdiction of its CEO, the laughably hissable Walter Simmons (Demián Bechir), and it is he who has recruited Lind to find and contain the "Hollow Earth" "life force" because A) they can use it against Godzilla unless he wants to exert his "cancel culture" privileges on APEX, and B) he can use it to (dare I say it?) RULE THE WORLD. Elon Musk would have started a travel agency to "Hollow Earth" but, no, Simmons wants all the power he can, and he's not going to stop at voter suppression.
This is all suspected by wackadoodle conspiracy pod-caster (and former APEX employee) Bernie Hayes (Bryan Tyree Henry) who was stealing APEX secrets at the time of Godzilla's attack, and he has a big fan in Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) who has seen Godzilla up-close (in King of the Monsters) and happens to have a Dad (Kyle Chandler) who's a research scientist—he invented the ORCA device in King of the Monsters—and a Mom who was killed by Godzilla in the same movie. But, she doesn't hold a grudge; she and school-pal Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) steal his brother's van and seek out Bernie to help him in his investigations, looking for clues in the rubble of APEX. What they find is that APEX has another site in Hong Kong and faster than you can say "convenient plot contrivance" they find a convenient plot conveyance to get them to Hong Kong.
The doctors manage to get Kong to Antarctica, but not before the first of the battles between Kong and Godzilla, this time using Navy ships as both weapons and foot-falls, and to avoid any more meetings—Andrews keeps coming up with these little factoids ("Kong bows to no one," There can't be two Alpha Titans," "They have an ancient rivalry") like she was simultaneously Kong's promoter and ring-announcer, even though, she has as much knowledge (or psychological understanding) as the crazy podcaster does. They helicopter a sleeping Kong to Antarctica—Helicopters aren't all that good at high-altitude, cold mountain rescues, and their flights are under heavy restrictions in Antarctica, but, by this time, I've already thrown away any high expectations as dubious and abandoned my skepticism. It couldn't have come at a better time, as at that point, Kong, the docs and the kid with a bunch of APEX merc's all take a trip down the biggest rabbit-hole in the world and arrive at Hollow Earth...no molten core, no crushing pressure...it's a prehistoric paradise with a rocky ceiling for a sky.
And that's about where my "sense of wonder" died. The "Godzilla" have a rich history of fantasy, quirkiness and camp kitsch, evolving from a fantastical cautionary tale of messing with the ecological balance of Nature into forays of adolescent giddiness. This one is in the latter camp. The monster battles are CGI wonders—if one doesn't wonder about casualties—and even have their own humor imagining these behemoths planting haymakers like pugilists and slamming skulls into buildings like overgrown children doing battle in a room full of furniture. It's semi-amusing, even when one questions why the CGI department hedged on putting an atmospheric haze on distant objects, making the cityscapes look like actual models—of the type the Toho studios used to throw around their guys in rubber suits—and simultaneously paying homage to the past, while compromising their attempts at photorealism.
They're the "draw" of the movie, certainly the uninspired script isn't, with its undeserved aphorisms and its pointless reaction-jolts ("Oh, this doesn't look good!"), its transitions that happen just because they have to (how does Chandler's Dr. Russell get from Florida to Hong Kong so fast?) and techno-schtick without even an attempt at trying to explain what the hell is happening and why (besides "this is a science beyond our understanding"). What would be the point? One more haymaker or body-slam and it concusses right out of your mind.
And they give Kong a big glowing axe. Any reason besides Thor-identification? I couldn't see any. Godzilla can atomic breath a hole through the Earth's crust into Hollow World? News to me. And I'm still trying to wrap my mind around there being sunlight in "Hollow World" in the center of the Earth. But, the biggest question I have is...in the midst of a pandemic, THIS is the movie Warner Brothers decided to "four-wall" on multiple-plex screens? Whoever thought that up has cajones bigger than Kong's!
The actors are brave, saying their lines and keeping straight faces. But, they're completely unnecessary to this enterprise, as worthless as story-logic, and regarded just as less. They're mere grout—no, less than that, spackle to cover up holes in the fight-fest. They might as well be Ring girls holding up "Round" signs, filling up time between bells. The lack of character motivation except the cartoon variety indicates that in our entertainment, the beasts have won. With all the ruckus and rumble, who needs human beings?