The two-sided debate over Godzilla vs. Kong—over any CGI-heavy blockbuster spectacle, really—is whether A) the flesh-and-bone human characters matter, and B) they even need to matter? In the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, “A” is easy, because the human characters absolutely 100% do not matter, try as this extraordinarily talented cast might. I have yet to see compelling evidence as to what Alexander Skarsgard is doing here except maybe filling in for Kong’s eye-line on set. The only one who can stay is Demian Bechir because the way he says “Godzilla” is a new form of sexual identity. However! “B” is complicated. The saving grace of Godzilla vs. Kong is how deeply it cares for its two title beasties as more than just “the spectacle.” Director Adam Wingard, VFX supervisor John DesJardin, VFX producer Tamara Watts Kent, and a veritable army of VFX artists take great pains to turn Godzilla and Kong into fully fleshed characters—bonafide protagonists—whose inner wants, needs, and turmoils you understand without hearing a word.
So much of that is concentrated in their faces. The real journey of Godzilla vs. Kong takes place across the visages of its towering titans, two marvels of modern-day effects work and cinematic storytelling, which tells you more about these iconic creatures than any human character ever could.
For example: Kong is having a terrible goddamn time for the entirety of this film. Big man gets dragged out of his home to get his ass kicked across multiple continents. That, honestly, was a shock to me; I was expecting a battle of equal-sized ass-kickers, a Transformers-esque clash of ones and zeroes where every beat is reaching for the same base level of cool. But Kong, for all his size and strength, spends the first 40 minutes of this movie visibly scared out of his mind. There’s panic there; insecurity. We’re endeared immediately to this “monster” who’s really just a soul out of its element. Look at him inspect the shackles around his wrists with curiosity, then worry. Look at him sign the word “home” with a pouting lip. Look at how much he hates loud noises. Kong might have grown a few hundred feet since Skull Island, Kong might be a prehistoric ass-kicking machine who snaps T-rex necks on the daily, but at his core Kong… is baby.
“I’d both die and kill for this gigantic ape” is a thought that played on a loop in my head across the first 40 minutes of this movie, a relationship with the audience that doesn’t quite come from Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein‘s script, but more from the way the camera lingers on Kong’s face in its most human moments. The characterization becomes clearer once Kong and Godzilla finally do get to throwing down. It is a straight journey to watch Kong’s face, the brash pre-fight roars of an alpha predator slowly turning to the realization that, for possibly the first time in his life, Kong is getting his ass absolutely handed to him. It is truly astonishing to realize the VFX artists on this film discovered the exact numeric algorithm to create the image of a monstrous gorilla regretting every life choice that led to this moment.
One of the drawbacks of being a radioactive hybrid dinosaur-whale is that Godzilla doesn’t get the same range of expressions. But boy, you still get every bit of Godzilla’s character from his face; it’s all in the eyes, two Clint Eastwood slits by way of a Game of Thrones dragon. Godzilla is Clubber Lang in this bitch, an alpha who has been the alpha so long his atomic brain can’t even fathom anything else. When the trailers for this film first dropped, theories abound as to why Godzilla was being so aggressive. The only explanation you need is in the way he looks at Kong after that first boat fight. There’s no twist here. He’s just kind of a towering, colossal asshole, the man with a gallon water jug at the gym who’ll get mad if someone else uses “his” dumbbells. Kong looks like he just had a heart attack in the middle of a Peloton class. Godzilla said, “please get back up, I could burn a few more cals.”
There have been a lot of (completely valid!) criticisms of this movie’s trip to Hollow Earth, mostly because it breezes right through the scientific discovery of a lifetime and the low-key implication there were Kong-worshipping humans living beneath the Earth’s crust. But it works if you look at it solely as Kong’s journey, an emotional one we see play out on his face and in his eyes, which are still capable of wonder.
Even if the humans babbling around his feet are stock exposition machines, even if the plotting is paper-thin—which they are and it is—there’s still a potent emotional impact in the way Kong’s face transforms from bewilderment to understanding. We see the gears are turning and finally click into place on one thought: This feels right.
All of this is in service to making the third-act fight in a neon-lit Hong Kong more than just empty spectacle, even though it is one dick-smasher of a spectacle indeed. The clash of personalities is so clear at this point, the dramatic and personal stakes so clearly defined by what the movie has told us, visually. To be blunter about it: The amount of “this motherfucker” energy radiating off of Godzilla could be seen from outer space.
Look at him. It’s the begrudging respect of a karate master who is about to spin-kick his pupil in the jaw. This titan, this mythic beast, simply cannot believe he’s going to have to teach this goddamn primate another lesson.
The ebbs and flows of this fight, the swings in momentum, the mood shifts of each monster, it’s all right there, plain as day. Kong is pure underdog, straight-up panicking from moment to moment as he looks to his surroundings for a leg up on his mismatched dance partner. He’s John McClane in a dirty tank top, he’s Rocky on the ropes trying to land a miracle punch. And then he does—he whacks Godzilla in the face with an ax made from the bones of his ancestors, my God—and that, friends, is the moment Godzilla buries Kong in the dirt.
I am still trying to comprehend the degree to which Kong gets worked over. Alexander Skarsgard says “I guess round two goes to Kong” and Godzilla reacts like he not only heard that, but he’s Michael Jordan hearing someone say he played subpar defense one time in 1998. This movie responded to the critique of “it shouldn’t even be a fair fight” by agreeing wholeheartedly; Godzilla drags Kong’s face across the entirety of Hong Kong, pops out his shoulder, and straight-up stomps on Kong’s chest until his heart stops beating. Again, look at Kong’s face. The most shocking thing this movie does is put real pain there.
Another major critique of Godzilla vs. Kong concerns a winner; more specifically, that there isn’t one, because both Kong and Godzilla survive to take down—surprise!—Mechagodzilla. But the images on-screen don’t support that reading. Kong, painted as the real protagonist of this film from frame one, is the emotional “winner,” landing the killing blow on Mechagodzilla that Godzilla could not. But Jesus Christ, look at him. Godzilla palmed his head like a basketball and casually bounced it off of every building in Hong Kong. He planted a big, scaly foot on Kong’s chest and compelled him to stop breathing. Kong is the ultimate, lovable underdog because he will keep fighting. This crazy bastard does deep-breathing and rams his shoulder against a whole-ass skyscraper to pop it back into place. But, if you’ll allow me to be a broken record one more time, look at his face. After Mechagodzilla is taken care of, and the threat of another scrap with Godzilla presents itself, Kong gets back up—he will always get back up—but he knows how that’s going to end ten times out of ten.
This is the look of a man gearing up for the ass-kicking of his life. This poor, valiant bastard could do this all day.
Godzilla knows, too. That look at the end is not “we’re buds now.” It is “I’m going to let you live, but you are welcome to fuck around and find out again any time.” Godzilla only leaves because he knows that result already. He knows, and what’s kind of beautiful is Kong knows, too, and is completely at peace with it.
My man just wants to go home.
Godzilla vs. Kong is currently available on HBO Max and in theaters.
Toss a coin to this perfect set photo.
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