Swinging for the fences was once a very viable approach to blockbuster filmmaking. Not so today, with studios more prescriptive than ever about what their hundreds of millions of dollars can be spent on. But it was only seven short years ago when Warner Bros. let Gareth Edwards swing for the fences and beyond with his ambitious Godzilla reboot – it wasn’t a clean swing by any means, but it was an impressive one, driven by genuine creative impulses over commercial ones. Unfortunately, this made it a very costly approach to blockbuster filmmaking for a studio whose tentpole slate was looking on shakier ground with each passing month.

Since Edwards’ laudable, studio-backed gamble, a newfound artistic conservatism has taken over Warner Bros, and its influence has scarcely been felt more strongly than in Godzilla vs. Kong. Following 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it’s the ignominious fourth entry in WB’s ignominious Monsterverse franchise, ignominiously shuffled out into socially distanced cinemas and onto HBO Max simultaneously. Overseen by director Adam Wingard and a raft of executive producers, the film is a crass, unimaginative, mostly artless affair in action fantasy filmmaking by the numbers. Commercial impulses haven’t just taken precedence over creative impulses – they’ve pummelled them down to the core of the Earth.

There is a plot in Godzilla vs. Kong, but it’s so predictable, so perfunctory as to warrant no substantial mention in any review of this misbegotten movie. Suffice it to say that an “ancient rivalry” has pitted the two titular creatures against one another, while human figures scuttle around the pair like noisy little insects, representing either the positive, humane aspects of society worth protecting amid the monsters’ rabid fury or the greedy, exploitative aspects of society eager to manipulate said fury to their corporate advantage. It’s all extremely simplistic, yet somehow the five-strong screenwriting team has found a way to fill out their concept with material that, paradoxically, only simplifies it further. Godzilla vs. Kong is rammed to the rafters with absurd contrivances and mind-boggling logical gaps – no, not gaps, more like endless, bottomless chasms – that ostensibly keep things moving forward. But forward to where? The movie runs in frantic, erratic circles from one set-piece to the next, racking up one inexplicable narrative turn after another until it runs itself right out of options and runs its audience right up the wall.

The lack of narrative and thematic coherence ought to open this movie up, to afford it space to explore stylistic and technical terrain only accessible to a movie with a reported $160 million budget. Alas, not now, not in 2021 and not with a director like Adam Wingard. Technique may not be something he possesses in any significant amount but his crew certainly does. Godzilla vs. Kong is loaded, perhaps overloaded, with technical wizardry, from dazzling CGI to an imperious sound design given added bombast by Tom Holkenborg’s thunderous score. But of what worth is all this fine craftsmanship when it’s put to such pathetic use? For sure, there’s art in the execution but if there’s none in the concept, if it’s all used only to tick off disposable boxes in a plot that reads as just a long list of disposable boxes, then what’s the point? There are movies that put in this much effort and then some, using fine craftsmanship to serve fine artistic purposes and they’re universally superior to Godzilla vs. Kong.

Comprising, as it does, elements both good and bad, somehow Wingard finds a way to make his movie worth rather less than the sum of its parts. The bad elements outweigh the good – the former make you feel sorry you’ve sat through this, the latter make you feel sorry they participated in it. Rebecca Hall and Brian Tyree Henry struggle admirably with dialogue ripped from an adolescent’s fanfic first draft – both escape their monster mates’ tussle with their lives intact, their dignity in tatters. Screenwriting decisions that boggle the mind abound, such as casually bringing a deaf, pre-pubescent orphan on a potentially deadly world-saving mission, or Godzilla burning a hole to the center of the Earth from the streets of Hong Kong, something I hardly think the CCP would just stand by and watch. All of the above feels even deliberately preposterous, like heavy-handed attempts to evoke Godzilla vs. Kong’s B-movie influences. But Godzilla vs. Kong isn’t a B-movie. It’s a mega-budget, star-studded multiplex filler that has no intention of ever looking, sounding or feeling like a B-movie. It’s a mess of a movie and best avoided, either in theatres or on your sofa.

Summary
Never mind the monsters, the real battle here is between the filmmakers’ complacency and the audience’s patience. Spoiler alert: we all lose.
26 %
GODAWFUL
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