If you have taken a look at my review for Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), you already know where I fall on the latest deep-trenched cultural battleground. I kind of fell in the middle when it came to Garth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014), which employed the time-tested, structurally sound approach of Jaws (1975) and even The Incredible Hulk (2008) in withholding the titular monster for as long as possible in order to build up tension, suspense and eventual, cathartic payoff while simultaneously either killing off or sidelining its only interesting human characters right after the first act (those being Bryan Cranston’s theorist Joe Brody and Ken Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa) to ensure that nothing interesting actually happens whenever Godzilla isn’t nakedly on-screen. Kong: Skull Island (2017) was a corrective step in the right direction that gave us more kaiju-fueled action and compelling human characters to follow around. And, spoiler alert, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters mostly succeeds as an Avengers (2012)-esque monster team-up and madcap beatdown of nuclear-powered super-monsters across iconic cities the world over.
As mentioned above, however, not everybody thinks about these movies in these terms. Many critics praised the first movie for its grounded approach and directorial restraint, beleagueredly sighed when its prequel was essentially a giant-sized monster mash and half altogether rage-quit over a 2+ hour long movie that plays out like some studio executive just filmed his 5-year-old nephew playing with some old Toho action figures and called it a day. Many street-level moviegoers, however, feel quite the opposite: bored at the idea of a mostly Godzilla-less Godzilla movie, cautiously optimistic about a Kong movie that heavily featured a giant CG ape and howling at the moon over the prospect of a 2+ hour long movie that plays out like some studio executive just filmed his 5-year-old nephew playing with some old Toho action figures and called it a day.
Essentially, critics and general audiences aren’t seeing eye-to-eye about this movie. And that’s nothing new: it’s long been the case that professional critics will poo-poo the latest, crowd-pleasing blockbuster while praising allegedly-boring, pretentious and glacially-paced arthouse dramas that most moviegoers can’t bring themselves to sit through for more than ten minutes at a time. Critics prefer craft, audiences prefer spectacle: so it has been and so it shall ever be. What’s amazing in this case, however, is how perfectly each side is repeating the exact same lines over and over again, and how each is intended to rebuke the other’s arguments, to the exact opposite effect.
You tell me that this is just a $200 million recreation of a toddler’s imagined battle played out with his favorite action figures? I’d assume that you’d be trying to warn me against the movie, but I would 100% see it because that’s exactly the kind of movie I want to pay to see. In fact, in his 10/10 review of the movie, my go-to movie critic spent half of his video making animal sounds and recreating some of the movie’s many battles with his own Godzilla-branded action heroes (and then, to drive the point home, by guest-starring He-Man and Bowser action figures as well).
Incidentally, this is also how they made the original, Gen 1 Transformers series. Some corporate executives hired a bunch of Marvel comic writers to sit down with Hasbro’s newly-licensed line of Japanese robot toys who sat down, played with them a bit and divided them into teams of good and bad guys with awesome-sounding names fighting an eternal war over control of their robotic home world (and, by proxy, Earth as well). It worked out pretty well then and it has worked out pretty well here too.
I think the problem here — essentially, why critics and general audiences are so split on this particular movie from this particular franchise — is that there is such a profound difference of expectation that the former group (critics) cannot possibly comprehend what the latter group (audiences) sees in the movie. Similarly, the latter group (audiences) cannot possibly comprehend what the former group (critics) has to grip about.
I think that the late, great Roger Ebert has the solution here: adopting a “relative, not absolute” approach to regarding the movie in question. In other words, I think that everybody (but, in this case, critics especially) should meet the movie where its at: judge it based on the merits of what it sets out to accomplish, rather than by the arbitrary standards of other movies, genres or styles of filmmaking. This means that when you decide on whether or not you should be recommending a big punch-out blockbuster like Godzilla: King of the Monsters to prospective ticket-buyers, your points of comparison should be more along the lines of Avengers: Endgame (2019), PokÃ©mon: Detective Pikachu (2019) and Aladdin (2019), rather than quieter, more esoteric films that have nothing at all to do with the movie you’re reviewing. You figure out what the movie wants to be — in this case, a beat-em-up team-up and throw-down between nuclear-aged super-monsters that calls back to quirky old Japanese monster movies featuring stunt actors wrestling in rubber dinosaur costumes and satisfies a large, tentpole audience — and judge the film based on that. As much as I hate constantly seeing the argument “It’s a Godzilla movie, not Citizen Kane” — and trust me, I really, really hate that argument — there is a kernel of truth in it: not that these movies shouldn’t aspire to be more, just that our job as critics isn’t to impose that on these movies and then punish them when they inevitably fall short of this impossible standard.
Judge a blockbuster against the strength of other blockbusters. Judge horror against horror. Judge kids movies against kids movies. Judge so-called “Oscar bait” against other Oscar bait. In short, do better. There’s no point, to borrow a turn of phrase from former Chicago Reader critic Jonathon Rosenbaum, in “ranking oranges over apples or declaring cherries superior to grapes.”
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