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NOC Review: ‘Godzilla Vs. Kong’ is Giant Fun but Has Giant POC Problems

As you, our loyal readers know, The NOC was created to provide input on the pop culture stories and trends we all love, but with a perspective that assess them from the greater lens of representation for people of color; fans like you. Sometimes in my reviews, I’ll assess a movie purely from an entertainment standpoint. But sometimes, a movie will come along that honestly needs to be looked at closer with both lenses. And Godzilla Vs. Kong, of all things, is actually one of those movies. To be frank, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like this movie. From an entertainment standpoint it’s actually a huge blast! But for a film in a franchise so heavily tied to Japanese roots, and prior to this installment, honored those roots proudly, it honestly gets me a bit angry whenever I think about it. So, with your permission, and because it’s cheaper than therapy, I’d like to use this review to talk about the things I loved about the film from an entertainment standpoint, the things I disliked from an entertainment standpoint, and the things I hated from a cultural standpoint as a fellow Nerd of Color.

To kick things off, Godzilla Vs. Kong takes place a few years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It begins when Godzilla, out of nowhere, attacks a facility for a multi-billion dollar corporation called APEX. The CEO of APEX, Walter Simmons (Damien Bichir), in response seeks out Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) and asks him to lead an expedition to the Hollow Earth–a long theorized world at the center of the Earth–to harness a source of energy that APEX is planning to use as a weapon against Godzilla. In order to get to Hollow Earth, however, Lind needs a Titan to escort them through (since Titans originally came from The Hollow Earth), and thus he contacts his former colleague at Monarch, and caregiver for Kong, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) to see if they can assist him in getting Kong to be that Titan chaperone. However, as legends state, bringing Kong out of Skull Island triggers an ancient rivalry he has with Godzilla–both being apex titans–and before you can say “king of the monsters,” Godzilla comes for Kong.

Let’s start with what I loved. This movie is honestly the most fun I’ve had seeing a film in the past year! You know I love kaiju movies and Godzilla movies in general, and Godzilla Vs. Kong delivers hands down the best action I’ve seen in the MonsterVerse, period. I gushed about how much I loved the action in King of the Monsters, but the fights in this one are clearer, more dynamic, more organic, and all the more brutal. The cinematography is just beautiful too. WB and Legendary deliver on a scale that is just so unheard of, that you will be smiling at every frame put to celluloid. The final battle(s) alone is well worth the price of an IMAX ticket. It’s an exciting, candy-coated colorful delight for your eyes and inner-8-year old! It’s spectacle incarnate!

In addition to the action, the other amazing thing about this movie is how it slyly makes Kong the big star. Yes, surprisingly, even though everyone’s favorite radioactive reptile gets top-billing, this movie actually belongs to the great gorilla. I’m a Team Godzilla guy, but Kong is infinitely more sympathetic here, and ends up being my favorite character in the film. All he wants to do is find a home, but whether it’s Godzilla or humanity, something is always stopping him. So you can’t help but feel bad for him and love him, since he’s ultimately the victim in all this. The movie totally understands that its greatest source of heart comes from Kong’s true humanity (for lack of a better term), and his relationship with Jia, a deaf girl who speaks to Kong through sign language, played by an adorable, scene stealing newcomer Kaylee Hottle. Their relationship is sweet, touching, and believable. However the movie also treats him like a complete badass! And, on more than one occasion, Kong saves the day in the most awesome, most brutal ways possible! Furthermore, his entire search for a home, and the subsequent journey to the Hollow Earth is so gorgeous and gonzo, that you can’t help but gleefully smile at the sheer ridiculous imagination this film has. There’s literally a scene of Kong reaching out at a floating rock in zero-gravity that’s surprisingly poetic, highlighting his sense of human wonder within an animal that should be all primal rage and instinct, but really is so much more.

On the other side of the coin, Godzilla sadly doesn’t get explored as a character as deeply in this film as Kong does, but frankly that’s okay since we had King of the Monsters not too long ago. We explored the similar humanity in Godzilla in that movie, so the groundwork was done. It’s the same principle behind not needing to establish who Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are in the very first Avengers film back in 2012. We accept Godzilla’s character and his motivations because he had two films to earn and establish them, and Godzilla Vs Kong frankly just needs to play off that. And in that regard, surprisingly, the MonsterVerse is actually better established and planned out than many other cinematic universes. We already know who Kong and Godzilla are when they begin their battle. And that sort of makes the stakes a bit higher because we actually do like both characters, and are invested in seeing which one will fall, because we really don’t want either of them to.

Where Godzilla Vs. Kong is less successful than King of the Monsters or Kong Skull Island, however, is the human element. Now I’ve often said that the humans don’t matter much in Godzilla movies, and I do stand by that. Yet many people still complained about the human story in King of the Monsters too. But I argue that at least in that film, I felt the humans were way more useful/necessary in terms of actually helping Godzilla than any of them were here, outside of Jia. In fact, in the entire franchise, I’d argue that this may be the stupidest group of humans from all four MonsterVerse films. For example, there’s a team of characters in this movie, played by really talented actors, that simply serves literally zero purpose other than to travel to Hong Kong to reveal expositional plot points for the audience, then perhaps spill a drink (you’ll know what I mean when you see it. Trust me. It’s dumb.). While one team is doing that, the other team has a bit more of a successful storyline that dives into really crazy sci-fi/fantasy territory that, to a degree, feels completely, tonally different from the previous three gritty/realistic films in this franchise. That second team is a lot more entertaining and engaging, but I found them still making such idiotic choices at times that it becomes hard to take any of them seriously as scientists.

The tone is also a bit more odd in this one than previous installments. For example, when we look back at Godzilla 2014, the material really treated things as if Godzilla attacking San Francisco was akin to a real-life 9/11-esque disaster. I can say that, for better and worse, Godzilla Vs. Kong completely throws that out the window and fully embraces camp and silliness. And it’s weird and, from a franchise standpoint, seriously inconsistent. So in that regard (the inconsistency specifically) I wasn’t a fan of the abrupt 180-degree shift. And yet, at the same time, odd and weird in this case is also kind of good. This installment doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it really shouldn’t! This is a movie about two kaiju smashing each other and beating each other senseless, so it’s time to let go of the grit and just embrace the fun. Yeah that makes things a lot stupider. But does it really matter as long as I’m entertained? In this case I’ll let inconsistency and intelligence slide, and embrace the goofy, nutty wham-bam of it all like I do with any Fast and Furious movie!

Now, there’s a reason I haven’t gotten to performances yet in this review, and it’s because this aspect of the film really ties heavily into what made me angry about it. As much fun as I did have with the movie, boy, does it really stomp all over its diverse cast in favor of giving the spotlight to White actors, who frankly give aggressively mediocre performances. We’re talking about a cast consisting of Brian Tyree Henry, Eiza González, Shun Oguri, Julian Dennison, and Academy Award-Nominee Demian Bichir. And they’re all wasted.

Do you know what sort of material they’re given? Henry plays a paranoid alcoholic crackpot of no real value in this film other than serving as a ridiculous exposition dump from scene to scene. The movie treats him like a caricature of conspiracy theorist loonies and poorly executed comedic relief that frankly makes him, one of the most charming actors working today, quite unappealing. González and Bichir are reduced to playing such broad 1-dimensional villains that are (spoiler alert) disposed of in ways that are treated like jokes (admittedly, I did laugh at one of those scenes, and groaned at the other). González, herself, who has time and time again proven her acting chops in films like this year’s I Care A Lot and 2017’s Baby Driver, is reduced to saying such stupid lines like “Did the monkey just talk?” Whereas, Bichir, an Oscar nominee, is literally playing a cartoonish villain with ridiculous motivations, written off in a scene that fits in more with Looney Tunes than a real Godzilla movie.

And, don’t get me started on Oguri’s character. Playing the son of Ken Watanabe’s incredible character Ishirō “Let Them Fight” Serizawa (not that this movie bothers to spend any time telling you that he’s Serizawa’s son, mind you), the stand-out character of the past two Godzilla films, Oguri’s character is not only a villain whose philosophies are inexplicably contrary to his father’s, but he literally says maybe five lines in one scene, then spends the rest of the movie “in a trance” plugged in to a giant kaiju skull, before getting electrocuted randomly. It’s an extremely disappointing showing for a Japanese character in a franchise that takes its roots from Japanese culture and has at least attempted to honor that culture in the past two films.

All of this garbage is given to seasoned actors of color, in favor of passing the spotlight to the generic White characters. Take returning character, Madison Russell, played by Millie Bobby Brown. We spend so much time with Madison doing absolutely nothing. She runs around the world to say some snarky things here and there, gets in trouble, and that’s it. Uh, could none of that screen time have been spent instead establishing a compelling story about Oguri’s Ren Serizawa and a fractured relationship with his kaiju-obsessed father who sacrificed himself trying to save Godzilla and the world? Could they not have discussed something on par with him blaming Godzilla for his father’s death? Apparently not! It is far more important to have Madison Russell talk about tap water with Henry’s paranoid crackpot character. There’s also Alexander Skarsgård, who does have a better role in the film than Brown, since he plays the, once again, White male hero who helps the Titans save Hong Kong from disaster.

And yes, I’ll give credit to the film for making Hottle, an actress of Asian descent, the heart and soul of the film with Kong. But at no point in the movie are we really aware that she’s a character of color. And look, I’m not saying they have to blatantly say she’s Asian and she’s saving the day. But it couldn’t hurt a movie that seems already incredibly keen to treat the other minority characters in it as giant jokes or non-existent entities. My point is, you’re a movie franchise derived from Japanese pop culture. Do better to represent that culture!

What makes the film all the worse is that this is the second time we’ve seen a movie by director Adam Wingard adapted from source material rooted in Asian culture being completely white-washed in its entirety. Wingard saw a lot of rage and controversy from the Asian community with his treatment of Death Note for Netflix, which was literally his last project. While I understand the studio has a significant hand at the casting decisions and story than perhaps Wingard himself would have, it really looks as if there was zero accountability or lessons learned from this experience on that previous film four years ago. There could have been further suggestions made to avoid these sorts of representation issues, but alas, this doesn’t appear to have been considered on any significant level, which is a huge shame and a real missed opportunity

To add further insult to injury, having the movie’s climax set in Hong Kong, while we root for giant monsters and White saviors to come stop the destruction or create more is seriously a bad look this day in age. Because the intent of the film is for audiences to be excited and joyful about seeing the epic showdown between Kong and Godzilla, the movie seems to be 100% okay with us callously not giving a damn about the hundreds of Hong Kong residents getting crushed and killed in the destruction. At least in King of the Monsters, we’re shown the US Government’s efforts to evacuate Boston, where the final showdown between Godzilla and Mothra vs. Rodan and King Ghidorah takes place. The carnage in that film occurs in the relatively uninhabited remains of the city. But here debris is falling from the sky and destroying Asians by the dozen. No one is trying to help or save any of the Asian citizens. But it’s supposed to be all okay because of how cool it looks. Between the previous film and this one, we’re seeing a completely mixed message in my opinion; one that seems to insinuate that the lives of American folks in Boston matter more than the Asian lives in Hong Kong. While I understand it’s not explicitly stated, no efforts are being made to show those lives need to be valued as well. And the intent is literally that we’re not supposed to question any of this, in favor of hooting and hollering at the pretty action on screen.

Furthermore, to even release this film during a time when violence against Asians and Asian Americans is running rampant is, quite frankly, an incredibly tone deaf decision. Did no one think about this? I mean what sort of message are we saying when we release statements saying “We stand against racism and violence against Asians…Now watch this really pretty movie where White people save Hong Kong, and root for giant monsters killing Asian people all over the streets!”

Look, I like Godzilla movies. And yes, I had fun with this film on a superficial level. I stand by the idea that it’s the most fun I’ve had turning my brain off for a popcorn movie in 2 years. But one of the things we, at the Nerds of Color, believe is that you can actually like a movie, but still take a lot of issue with how problematic it is. And for every ounce of fun Godzilla Vs. Kong has to offer, there are a LOT of problematic areas that need to be assessed as well. And to that end, I encourage you, our fans and fellow people of color to continue to go out and support this movie. Why? Because we still want more Godzilla movies in the future – especially if the action and spectacle is still fun and worth watching. But I urge you that with every ticket you claim or stream you view, to also tell the studio that they need to do better next time! Do we want to see Godzilla and Kong again? Of course we do. We just also want to see ourselves in these movies in better opportunities than this specific installment afforded us. And we want to see less disregard and double standards regarding the on-screen deaths of people that look like us. God knows we see it in real life enough. We can’t persist in spreading the message that this sort of violence is okay when it comes to people of color. So send our message instead.

Godzilla first debuted in 1954, and times have changed significantly since then. It’s time his films start changing too.

Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B
Overall Score (on a representation level): D-

5 comments

  1. Your review is a great example of how to critique a movie you enjoyed but see problems with. Excellent job. A shame the film didn’t do as well by its Asian cast.

    1. Appreciate the compliment. It actually is a lot of fun, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Especially given they did a pretty decent job avoiding this issue in the previous ones. That said, see it, turn off your brain, and enjoy. And thanks for reading!

  2. Hey! I happened to find your review when searching for reviews of GvK by POC’s to get some added perspective! Admittedly, I had to skim through parts of it to avoid some spoilers mentioned (not ranting or mad!) and I find your take on enjoying a film but acknowledging problematic areas to be really interesting and fascinating because this is something I struggle with as a viewer. Whenever I see that a film has issues with it’s POC characters/casting, I always feel that someway I’m hurting and disrespecting POC viewers if I enjoy a certain film, especially if a POC mentions it in a review or conversation, or if I haven’t seen the film yet I tend to not watch them over said issues. So seeing how you still recommended seeing the film is something that is really interesting to me, and was wondering how you were able to balance noticing and feeling (justifiably) upset over the issues regarding the POC characters, but also still having fun and enjoying watching the film and recommending it? I’m super sorry for the essay, just a big Godzilla film fan, but also someone who wants to make sure that I am not hurting others by the media I watch! I guess I’m still working on being able to do both! I appreciate your review for giving me a perspective to think about when and after I see the film!

    1. Hi John. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You absolutely didn’t do anything offensive and you raised a really good question.

      It can be difficult to isolate sometimes but I strongly feel there are 2 ways to look at a movie: From an entertainment and narrative perspective and from a sociological perspective.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a good movie on an entertainment perspective. A Fast and Furious movie, or Avengers can be loved and enjoyed for fun, spectacle, heart, etc. all depending on character, story, plot, action, etc. And in that regard, the MonsterVerse is pretty high up there. It’s fun. It’s gorgeous. It’s pretty well developed as a franchise. And that is something we need in our lives because sometimes the real world can be difficult to deal with. Escapism and indulging in the fun it brings is necessary to bring some sense of joy in our lives.

      From a sociological perspective, there doesn’t always have to be an expectation. I don’t go into Avengers movies expecting deeper commentaries on life and that’s ok. They’re not trying to. And on the whole neither is Godzilla vs Kong. But when you think about the roots of a franchise like Godzilla, they really started in Japanese culture.

      Now for an American studio to adapt it is not only fine, but also encouraged to spread the love and fandom to other cultures, but it needs to be done with a bit of reverence and acknowledgement, otherwise it’s almost like inferior plagiarism. Or worse, the implied notion that an American company can do something that’s authentically Japanese better than its creators. I felt that reverence to the Japanese influence in the first two WB Godzilla films with Ken Watanabe’s character, but it seems to have been abandoned here. And that’s one of the things that bothered me. The sole allusion to Japanese culture is Shun Oguri’s character and his role is not only minor but pointless. The second allusion to Asian culture (in this case not Japanese but still Asian) is the setting of Hong Kong where much of the damage and chaos ensues. Hundreds of Asians getting killed, which is a point not focused on at all.

      When you combine that with the notion that other characters of color are also given little to do, it makes you wonder why. Why were those decisions made? From a narrative or entertainment standpoint any character of any decent could have played Alexander Skarsgaard’s part. Why did it strictly have to be a White male? And that’s the part that’s troublesome. You abandon the reverence to the Japanese roots of the franchise or opportunity to shine the spotlight on other actors of color for nothing. And that is problematic. That’s something studios and filmmakers should consider when making these films. Otherwise it marginalizes or alienates other cultures.

      Now those issues don’t prevent you from enjoying the spectacle of two giant monsters fighting each other. That’s isolated. That part of us prioritizing the entertainment cuz it fills us with joy can and still should enjoy that. Feel the fun. Enjoy it cuz you deserve it. And GVK delivers in that well. It’s almost decoupled from the other parts of the movie that bother me.

      But consider how this is being seen by millions of people. What sort of message is it spreading and what sort of influence is happening when those viewers see a White male once again saving the day, or the Japanese guy as one of the villains. Or the idea that Asian citizens getting killed is something we can brush off? That’s understated negligence and underlying racism at its core.

      Point is, it’s completely ok to go into a movie with your brain turned off and come out enjoying it. But once that’s over, think about how there’s still room for growth in the industry and in society.

      Hope that makes sense and thanks again for reading and listening.

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