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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

One Thing Covid Didn’t Smash to Pieces? Monster Movies

By no means a thinking person’s film, Godzilla vs. Kong nonetheless has moments of something like—what might be called—you could say—intelligence. Perhaps the smartest thing it did, for instance, was cast Kaylee Hottle in the part of Jia, a young girl who can talk to Kong. Both actress and character are deaf; when she first appears, the filmmakers pull off a nifty perspective shift by sucking out most of the sound. (But if you have a good enough subwoofer, you’ll feel the telltale earthquakes in your bones. Kong cometh!) Later, we learn that Jia communicates with the big monkey the same way certain primate researchers interact with their subjects: in sign language. So not only does a deaf kid get to star in a major monster picture—it also makes effortless, plot-relevant sense to have her there. Kind of remarkable, really.

Monster movies, as a general rule, don’t aspire to this level of sensitivity. Overachieving spectacles, they exist to visit mindless, magnificent mayhem upon people and places, with scarcely a pause to consider the consequences. In the end, Godzilla vs. Kong wishes it were more, but it’s not. Hottle’s participation notwithstanding, it’s a stupid film, a kaiju clobberfest—a KaijUFC—right up through its titularly self-defeating team-up of a finale. (Someday, someone in Hollywood will have the guts to pick a side.) The presence of perfect physical specimen Alexander Skarsgard as a shy scruffy scientist who mutters ridiculata like “Hollow Earth theory” and “reverse-gravitational effect” only serves to glamorize the stupidity.

Luckily, GvK isn’t the only creature feature of the Covid era that wants you to trade real-life death and destruction on a global scale for fictional death and destruction on a global scale. At least two other contenders are vying for Kong’s Hollow Earth throne, and though most people seem to have missed them when they came out at the end of last year—don’t feel bad; 2020 doesn’t count—both contribute something special, timely, and even moving to the modern meaning of monsterdom at the megaplex.

The first, back in October, was Love and Monsters. It sounds like a bad Anne Hathaway movie, but fear not. This one stars Dylan O’Brien, who’s best known for playing the hero of the Maze Runners, Thomas. In that franchise, he mostly flexed his muscles and leadership abilities. Here, he’s got neither. As Joel, he’s a happy-go-lucky guy who just wants to help his fellow postapocalyptic survivors slay the giant mutated insectoidal horribles that have taken over the planet. Trouble is, in the face of any such beastie he panics and practically pees himself. It’s all very relatable.

If Joel has any skills, they’re of the much softer kind. He cooks a mean minestrone. He draws pretty pictures. Also, he’s a romantic. When he gets back in touch with an old girlfriend over a staticky radio, he immediately vows to find her. This means leaving the safety of his underground colony for the dangers of the surface, where the wild things roam. Armed with a sketchbook and a crossbow he can’t shoot, off he goes.

At no point does Love and Monsters trip over the sort of flat-footed monumentality that drags down the likes of Godzilla vs. Kong. (Except Joel does trip a lot as he struggles to dodge whipping tongues, flailing tentacles, etc.) It’s too sweet and a little stupid, but only because it wants to be. The air is fresh, the jokes jokey. It uses every trick—a cute dog, a cute kid, a cute robot—to chip away at your Godzilla armor. And somewhere along the way, it works. You give in, and fall in love.

Part of it is O’Brien’s charm, coupled with his creaky, perma-pubescent voice, which the script has its clever way with. The other part is the monster effects, which seem about half as computer-generated as GvK’s. For a climactic beach battle with a “hell crab,” the filmmakers installed a huge blow-up crab doll on set so the actors would have something to play against. By contrast, when Hottle had to act with Kong, she had nothing to look at, save a massive green screen. “One of the hardest parts was trying to pretend there was a bond there,” she said in a recent interview. In Love and Monsters, the bonds are real, and not just between the nice humans. The aforementioned cute kid, whom Joel meets on his overground journey, imparts several important lessons, one of which is: Look at the eyes. She means the eyes of the creatures. If they’re gentle and kind, maybe they don’t want to eat you. Maybe they—and the movie they’re in—want less to do with breaking things apart than with putting them back together.

Or not. A second monster movie, which came out in December, doesn’t even pretend to have intelligence behind its eyes. In one pivotal scene, in fact, a monster hunter—the movie is literally called Monster Hunter—hurls his spear at the unkind eye of a towering sand rhino. His aim is true; eye goo gets everywhere. That’s when you know: This movie wants to be the purest, most perfect expression of what the genre can be.

In short, it succeeds. Monster Hunter is the sort of movie that dares dummies to think it’s dumb. It makes itself painfully easy to criticize in the conventional language of criticism. None of the characters are “developed.” It can’t be said to have a “plot.” All it is is one fight sequence after another, things exploding, body parts gushing, people dying, interspersed with what barely qualifies as dialog.

But none of these, to be clear, count as weaknesses. Such a commitment to schlock takes courage, great courage! Unlike, say, Godzilla vs. Kong, which wastes too many resources in a pathetic attempt to establish some vital core of humanity, Monster Hunter simply puts you in front of bigger and bigger monsters, and nothing, not the interdimensional lightning storms nor the random tribe of desert warriors nor the mysterious tower guarded by fire-breathing dragons, is ever even remotely explained. Plus, it stars the legendary Milla Jovovich—as directed, in their fifth collaboration together, by her husband, Paul W. S. Anderson. If the fun they’re having here (and always) is any indication, theirs is the bitchin’-est marriage ever. At one point, Jovovich’s twin swords burst into flames, and she looks around for an explanation. None is given.

Monster Hunter does not have an ending; as an adaptation of a narratively looping video game franchise, it merely stops. Mid-fight, to be exact. You are amazed, relieved, and ready to play it again. Here, finally, is a monster movie that truly knows itself. There’s no tearful reunion, no promise of a better tomorrow. Just more carnage on the other side.

That’s what Godzilla vs. Kong, in the final analysis—and even Love and Monsters, adorable though it is—fails to understand. Monster movies don’t mean anything. Maybe they play on our fears. Of nuclear warfare. Of invasion. Of infection. But they don’t have anything to say about those fears. They’re metaphors, in a sense, for an absence of metaphors. Do monster movies hit any harder, any different, now that we’re coming out the other side of a stupid, pointless pandemic, one that leveled cities and populations all over the planet? Not at all. If anything, their purpose, if they have one, is clearer than ever. There is nothing to be learned, nothing to be gained, from mindless death and destruction.

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