STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Godzilla is a gigantic, rampaging killer lizard. King Kong is a gigantic, rampaging killer ape. In "Godzilla Vs. Kong," they fight a lot. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Godzilla Vs. Kong" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
Welcome back. Joining me from her home in Philadelphia is Christina Tucker of the "Unfriendly Black Hotties" podcast. Welcome back, Christina.
CHRISTINA TUCKER: Hello. Hello. Thrilled to be here.
THOMPSON: And joining us from his home in Denver, Colo., is writer and film critic Walter Chaw. Welcome, Walter.
WALTER CHAW: Thank you so much for having me.
THOMPSON: It's great to have you. So the concept of "Godzilla Vs. Kong" is right there in its title. It is a collision of two classic film franchises. It's also a sequel to two different movies, 2019's "Godzilla: King Of The Monsters" and 2017's "Kong: Skull Island," which means you get two movies worth of byzantine backstory.
There is an evil corporation called Apex Cybernetics, led by Demian Bichir. And Kong is kept in a kind of virtual zoo, and there's a prehistoric world below the Earth's surface. Brian Tyree Henry is a conspiracy theorist and a podcaster who used to work for Apex Cybernetics. He goes rogue and teams up with a couple of teenagers led by Millie Bobby Brown to investigate a conspiracy at the corporation. Also, Alexander Skarsgard and Rebecca Hall are kind of looking after Kong, who has a special connection to Hall's adopted daughter, Gia, who is deaf. And look; there is a lot of plot in "Godzilla Vs. Kong," and it is all largely window dressing for the fact that one great big classic movie monster wails on another great big classic movie monster, like, a whole bunch.
Christina, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Godzilla Vs. Kong" and its many, many nuances?
TUCKER: I mean, here's the thing. At the end of the day, there are two genres of film that I'm always going to be a sucker for. One is thriller, comma, legal. And the other is big monsters being very big. So I'm here for this. I'm very interested in what's happening. I will say I did find this, especially the human plot building, a little hard to follow in a way that I don't believe that these movies should be. Just, like, that's, like, a personal belief I hold very deeply. I should not be perplexed by what's happening in a movie where a giant lizard fights a giant ape. I should know what's going on. There are times I simply didn't.
But when I did know what was going on, was I having a good time? I really, really was. And that is kind of the experience of "Godzilla V. Kong" that I was hoping for. I think I wanted a little less plot, maybe a little less children teaming up with a rogue conspiracy podcaster and more conversation around my two kings, Godzilla and Kong.
THOMPSON: How about you, Walter?
CHAW: Yeah. You know, I mean, I think it's about 40 minutes in the movie before we actually have the romantic pairing. You know, the two of them meet, you know, on the ocean. It's a lot. It's a lot of exposition. And I think the actors, you know - a really good cast. They're just 50% exposition dump and 50% reaction shot.
CHRISTINA TUCKER AND STEPHEN THOMPSON: Yeah.
CHAW: That's it. And to your point, Stephen, and to your point, Christina, it's just byzantine. It's so much junk. And for movies under this monsterverse (ph), they have to honor all the movies that came before, and they have to set up all the movies that they hope will come after. It's just - it's almost like the Marvel Universe now. It's just a mess. And you have to have a lot of time on your hands and a lot of attention to be able to follow all the different threads, I think, that they're trying to pull at the same time. It'll be fun for diehards, I guess, you know, if there are diehards to the monsterverse to pick out all the Easter eggs. But for me, it's really just - wish they would have gotten to the fights a lot quicker and then not done anything in between. Just make it, you know, two solid hours of them fighting...
CHAW: ...Or something other than the attempted exposition and worldbuilding.
TUCKER: This movie briefly asked, do we need humans at all? And I don't know. Maybe we don't.
CHAW: You know, I think the tragedy, though, is the best Godzilla movies are very human-centric, really. It's about these forces beyond our control that act on us. And how do we respond to that as a community? The different reactions to Godzilla, you know, coming into our lives is really fascinating in the best Godzilla movies - you know, the "Shin Godzilla" film or "Destroy All Monsters." Those are about people even with 11 monsters sometimes in the case of one of those. This movie, people are really just irritating. They're pointless. And, boy, it's just deadening. The delivery of those lines and the delivery of that dialogue is deadening. You can tell those actors are like, I don't even know what I'm saying. Just give it to me. It's like a TV doctor. They're just reading something.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GODZILLA VS. KONG")
MILLIE BOBBY BROWN: (As Madison Russell) Dad, I'm telling you, there's something provoking him that we're not seeing here. Why else would Godzilla flash an intimidation display if there wasn't another Titan around?
KYLE CHANDLER: (As Mark Russell) That podcast is filling your head with garbage. You should be in school.
BROWN: (As Madison Russell) I am just trying to help.
CHANDLER: (As Mark Russell) I don't want you to help. I want you to stay safe. We needed a plan to keep peace with these things, and the best one we had just went down in flames. I don't have...
THOMPSON: Yeah, the line readings in this movie are really curious. And I did find watching it - I laughed harder watching this movie than I have had a lot of comedies. And I think that is where this movie really does raise the question of, is it good? No. Is it fun? Yes. I had a lot of fun watching this very stupid movie and did a lot of laughing at this clonk-a-dunk dialogue, which is either spouting this kind of incredibly serious and incredibly empty, as you said, Walter, exposition dump or they're interacting in just the most cursory and uninteresting ways imaginable. I mean, there is action before the ape and the lizard finally meet up. So it's not 40 minutes of completely dry, clunky exposition. It's doofy. It's such a bad movie in some ways, and yet it is a very effective movie in others.
I do think it is interesting that they are trying to build a monster cinematic universe here and that they hired a writers room to kind of put this story together, this, like, larger overarching story that's supposed to run through all these movies. And, man, I have talked on this podcast a number of times about my complete, like, biological inability to comprehend the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I have seen, like, all but maybe one or two Marvel movies. And I could not tell you what the overarching story is. I mean, there's so many Byzantine workings. And to be thrust into yet another incredibly complicated cinematic universe and be expected to retain who and what everything is, it's just wild to me how complex they've decided to make this story.
TUCKER: It's interesting that they decided to make it this complex, especially because when it comes down to it, all they say about why these two are fighting is, well, it's an ancient rivalry.
TUCKER: And we never get any other explanation. So it's like, what is all of this building leading to, if not an actual reason or, like, some sort of actual conversation about the point of this fight? It's just an ancient rivalry. No need to worry about it. We'll just move on. What are we doing here?
CHAW: Yeah. You know, I think the reasons for it are so oblique that it actually opens the door for historical readings of it. If you say it's an ancient rivalry, well, let's really talk about why these monsters are so enduring. I mean, King Kong is, like, 1933 where he gets his first movie and Godzilla in 1954. These are ancient monsters, you know, in the modern sense or in cinematic sense anyway. And why are they fighting, and what are their sources? And I think that was really distracting for me. I found it to be less fun because of that.
You know, when you watch a product of our racist slave-owning past, you know, with King Kong, it's one of the most loaded properties that you can imagine. You have that image fighting against Godzilla, which is a product of our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was designed by the Japanese Ishiro Honda in 1954 as a real reckoning with something that's innocent that's awakened by atrocity. Even the design of the monster, the Godzilla monster, was meant to echo some of the radiation scarring from victims of that event. People - when they were watching that movie, people were crying when they were leaving the theater in Japan. But when it was brought over to America, it was recut. The political elements are taken out of it. Raymond Burr is inserted into it to give it a white center. And ever since then, "Godzilla" has been sort of been seen as a campy thing. You know, at the end of the second "Jurassic Park" film, there's a scene where a bunch of Japanese tourists are running away from the T-Rex and everyone laughs in recognition because this is how we see it. This is how we see Asians, how we see the "Godzilla" series.
But really, what "Godzilla Vs. Kong" for me felt like a lot was this whitewashing of the difficult past, the common genesis in American atrocities for both of these monsters. Fighting each other in Hong Kong, which is recently relinquished by the British back to the Chinese, a British colony in China, these things are not unrelated. And we're looking at this massive spectacle film where we're meant to celebrate and cheer. But there is no cost to the human lives on the ground in this film. And neither is there any reckoning, really, with the history of these two characters. And so I'm not expecting a history lesson. I'm not expecting to be terribly edified. But what a shame to miss out, especially in the climate now, of having some of these conversations about representation. You know, should we have a Japanese guy driving a mecha? Should we have a native child who's referred to as an Inuit in the film as this conduit to the great savage beast? Should we still be doing these things in our film? I think we should, in fact, maybe try to do a little bit better.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I think it speaks to - you know, when you're talking about the complicated history at work here, there is an opportunity to address some of these things. I mean, you've established you're only going to have X number of minutes of epic monster-on-monster battles. You could fill that dialogue with a more interesting take on these characters rather than just having this - like, it is a conspiracy of such and such, an industrialist, and all this kind of world building. I think they ultimately kind of take the least interesting possible approach to these characters.
I do want to say one thing in this movie's favor. I do agree with Walter that it has always bothered me in these movies where they, like, kind of flatten these cities with kind of no commentary whatsoever on the human cost involved. I've sort of come to terms with, like, movies are never going to really bother to acknowledge how, basically, horrific that is and that you're going to have these scenes where you have devastation equal to about 200 September 11ths and that at the end of it, there is, A, not going to be a plume of smoke anywhere to be seen and, B, everyone's going to be like, whew.
But at the same time, compared to "Jurassic Park," the Jurassic Park movies - kind of especially these later, like, Chris Pratt iterations - have this weird undercurrent of sadism about how they treat people who you're supposed to perceive as villains. There's a moralistic underpinning to those Jurassic Park movies where it's like, here are who the bad guys are, and now we will watch them not only die, but die horrifically and kind of tortured, and you're supposed to derive this kind of giddy thrill from that. I did appreciate in this movie - obviously, it has a body count, but it is not particularly cruel in its dispatching of people who get dispatched. And I did - after a bunch of really soul-deadening Jurassic Park movies, I did appreciate that about this very, very dumb movie.
TUCKER: Yeah. I mean, it did the thing that, you know, the later Marvel movies - and I think now kind of our big bashing movies do - which is they toss off, like, a we've-evacuated-the-city kind of line...
TUCKER: ...Wherein we're supposed to believe that everyone just, like, very mannerly, single-file, just, you know, exited the city of Hong Kong and everything is fine now...
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah.
TUCKER: ...Which is, like, a very interesting way of just being like, well, we hear your complaints; we still have to destroy at least thousands and thousands of billions of dollars of infrastructure, but we've taken these people out of the city.
CHAW: Yeah. And obviously, these films are not designed for a lot of combing through, right? They're not for that. And I think most defenses of this film - and there will be many, and it's really doing good business already overseas - is that you have to see it on a big screen. If you're going to see it, see it on the biggest screen you could possibly find, with the best sound system, and see it with an audience. And yeah, it's a spectacle. It's a fireworks show. And, you know, you can unpack the colonial history of fireworks, or you can just watch the fireworks. It's lit like an old Hong Kong film. It's really beautiful. Their destruction is fabulous, you know?
CHAW: But it's hard for me anymore, I think - in the last two weeks, especially, and the last four years, perhaps - for me to just enjoy stuff like this. I think more and more - I worry more and more about my kids as they go on in this world more and more. And I feel like, boy, this is all fun and everything, but let's have a conversation, perhaps, you know, a little bit about why you think all Asians look like this and play video games and stuff inside a giant skull and why you think, you know, Native Americans are especially attached to nature in some mystical way. And, you know, we should begin to unpack some of these stereotypes because, indeed, some of these stereotypes have gotten Asian women killed, just two weeks ago.
And if we can't stop representing, in our largest possible platforms like this, to our least discerning audiences, if we can't have more positive representations, then I think we're in trouble, even more trouble than we already are. You know, I sound like a doomsayer. I'm really bringing it down. Guys, I do like giant apes bashing giant lizards. Don't get me wrong.
CHAW: Don't get me wrong. But there's provenance to these images, and I think there's - it's worthy of a conversation afterwards, if not before.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think those are great points, Walter. There is a surprising amount to unpack in this movie in which a giant lizard beats up on a giant ape. You can watch "Godzilla Vs. Kong" - HBO Max subscribers can stream it for no additional charge for a limited time.
We want to know what you think about "Godzilla Vs. Kong." You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to you both for being here.
TUCKER: Thank you.
CHAW: Thank you.
THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. Tomorrow we're going to be talking about something very personal and very exciting to the hosts of this show - our favorite Muppets. So come back tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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