'Godzilla vs. Kong' Reviewed!
Big monkey and big lizard go punch-punch! Also: Are two 'Knives Out' sequels worth $400 million?
My eyes popped out of my head a bit when I saw how much Netflix has paid for the rights to two Knives Out sequels: around $400 million.
That was the figure Deadline had; Variety puts the figure at $450 million. Either way: a tremendous sum. Ten times the cost of the first (though I suppose you could look at it more like five times the cost, since there are two of these pictures coming down the pike). An allocation of roughly 4.5 percent of Netflix’s annual content budget for four to five hours of content.
I find the deal fascinating and kind of overwhelming for a handful of reasons, one of which is that I don’t quite see how this helps Netflix win its war on sleep. If your goal is to capture eyeballs and keep them glued to your service for an enormous amount of time, tying up a huge amount of money on a product that will do pretty decent viewership numbers for a couple of weeks and then recede into the unending abyss of other content in the pile seems like spritzing a water can at a bonfire.
But I’d be foolish to second-guess Netflix! They know their business better than I know their business. The question, then, is why did the numbers hit these heights?
The first interesting nugget is that this auction, if Deadline is to be believed, took place entirely between three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. Meaning it wasn’t just Netflix, it was all the streamers. Obviously, winning the war on sleep doesn’t matter quite as much as capturing the rights to a successful franchise, and all of these streamers are low on intellectual property with a proven value.
Which brings me to point number two: franchises don’t really hit the market all that often. Think back to James Emanuel Shapiro’s piece for us about the possibility of MGM being auctioned off. What did everyone want? A piece of the James Bond franchise. But which potential purchasers really needed it?
Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.
These are services lacking in a signature property (no disrespect to Ted Lasso, The Boys, and Stranger Things) along the lines of those owned by HBOMax or Disney+. They want something that will attract casual viewers, appeal to artists and critics, and reduce churn by keeping current subscribers happy. Combine a massive advertising campaign with the possibility of an Oscar-season push, and maybe—maybe!—that $450 million figure makes sense.
“But still,” I hear you say. “That’s a big number!”
And yet: Is it really that much bigger (after salaries and production costs and overages and profit points all that) than would’ve gone to secure the film for a traditional studio with a theatrical model?
“Sure, yet: $450 million. That’s like ten Bridgertons! That was a big hit, and ten Bridgertons provide 80-some hours of content!”
Yes, but: Bridgertons are not easy to come by. How many Disenchantments is it?
“Ah, but . . . wait, what is Disenchantment?”1
And therein lies the rub. You never asked that question about Knives Out when I mentioned it but did not describe it to remind you what it was, now did you?
If you’re enjoying the Bulwark’s cultural content—not only my podcasts, Across the Movie Aisle and the Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, but also great essays like this look back at the amorality of novelist Charles Willeford’s books by Bill Ryan—please consider becoming a member of Bulwark+. Or give a gift to a friend who loves culture and politics! It’s only $10 a month, they’ll get access to the Bulwark’s full panoply of newsletters and podcasts, and you’ll help keep this whole thing sustainable.
Review: Godzilla vs. Kong
So, you wanted to see a big lizard punch a big monkey? Have I got a movie for you!
This movie is absolutely review-proof because it has a big lizard punch a big monkey. That’s all we were promised. That’s all we are given.
It doesn’t really matter that the plot doesn’t make much sense, that the human characters are barely sketched out, that the soundtrack is distressingly mellow and dull for one authored by Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). A big lizard punches a big monkey!
Sometimes they punch some other stuff. The big lizard smashes up Pensacola because it’s mad at Apex Cybernetics for refusing to denounce the anti-lizard regulations passed by the Florida legislature. The big monkey throws spears through the holographic walls of the Monarch-built base that serves as his habitat because he’s angry he can’t live in the raging storm that has, for some reason, engulfed Skull Island. The big monkey has to be hidden from the big lizard because if the big lizard finds out about the big monkey, the big monkey will be in big trouble.
(How, exactly, he remains hidden isn’t entirely clear given that Godzilla can apparently sense Apex’s underground machinations to . . . eh, never mind, just roll with it.)
But, eventually, the big lizard finds the big monkey and they punch each other. First the big lizard and the big monkey punch each other in the ocean, hopping from aircraft carriers to destroyers and back again. Then the big lizard and the big monkey punch each other in the metropolis of Hong Kong, destroying it with glee. Then the big lizard and the big monkey punch some more.
Look, like I said, if you want to see a big lizard punch a big monkey, this is the movie for you. King Kong serves as a perfectly capable human surrogate, waking up and scratching his butt while he yawns and stumbles into his morning shower. (This is a thing that actually happens.) Godzilla is fine as a nice bad guy, the sort whose villainy is really just a misunderstanding, you know? Who cares if the two of them kill literally millions of people in Hong Kong?
Big monkey and big lizard go punch-punch!
(As an aside, the only truly interesting thing about this movie is the Chinese government’s decision to allow the showing of a film in China in which Hong Kong is absolutely demolished by invading monsters without the Chinese military providing at least a pretense of trying to save the citizens at risk. The Pekingology here is fascinating; in one of the later Transformers installments, Michael Bay inserted a scene in which the Chinese military renders assistance and protects the people of Hong Kong from harm; here, however, they’re left to their devices. A warning to those in the formerly free city who would resist Chairman Xi’s glorious beneficence?)
I know there are some critics who will go on at length about the beauty of the monsters from their childhoods throwing CGI haymakers at each other; it’s not just a video game cut scene, you see, we all need to marvel at the amazing mo-cap acting. You’ll really believe it when King Kong tries to pop his shoulder back into place after it’s been dislocated! (This is a thing that actually happens.) I’m not immune to this sort of rhapsodic waxing myself, exactly, though I’m at a loss to explain why this movie seems to be getting a pass from critics for being “fun” while its predecessor was hammered for being “dumb.”
I will suggest that Godzilla vs. Kong takes a while to get things going, given the first monster-lizard punch isn’t thrown until 40 minutes or so in. I will gesture at the general goofiness of the human characters, the ensemble of which resembles a lower-tier Devlin/Emmerich production from the late-’90s or mid-’00s. I will say that, hey, I watched this at home on a really nice TV with an okay sound system, and it reminded me that nothing can beat a theater for this sort of picture.
But the good news is that I’m headed to a theater this weekend to watch it again. And the really good news is that lots of other people are going to see the big monkey punch the big lizard in a theater.
Because if you’re going to go see a big monkey punch a big lizard . . . well, you might as well do it on a big screen.
Post-theater update: I, like so many others, caught a screening of Godzilla vs. Kong in theaters this weekend. And it is a movie that plays modestly better in theaters. Not just because of the size of the screen, though it’s good to see a big monkey punch a big lizard on as big a screen as possible.
It’s the size of the speakers that make the most difference: unless you’re a professional audio technician or a speaker-hoarding audiophile like my friend and podcast-mate Peter Suderman, your home theater just isn’t going to give you the full, rumbling, richness of a theater. Godzilla’s roar won’t rip through you, making you wince slightly in dread. Kong’s beating heart—a key plot point, given that one of the characters is deaf and can feel his heart slowing at an important moment in the film—doesn’t rumble through your chest.
I say this not to brag, just to describe, but I have a very good TV (LG OLED, CX series, 65-inch) and a decent-enough soundbar setup (a Vizio with a sub that has on more than one occasion caused my wife to ask me to use headphones at night when she’s trying to sleep). And when it comes to a big, loud, dumb, fun movie like this it’s not even close when compared to theaters. Sure, my picture might be as sharp. But my TV is still relatively small, and the theater’s is huge (and I wasn’t even watching on an IMAX). Sure, my bass might rumble. But the theater speakers are working on more channels than I could ever be bothered to build at home, ensuring that the sound truly surrounds (and I wasn’t even listening in a Dolby Atmos theater).
That doesn’t solve some of the plotting/characterization issues with Godzilla vs. Kong. But it does make the experience better. And sometimes a movie needs to be experienced, rather than watched.
Got a friend on the fence about seeing the big lizard and the big monkey punch each other on a big screen? Forward them this newsletter and it might sway them!
Assigned Viewing: Mary Reilly (Roku Channel, VOD)
During my Bulwark Goes to Hollywood chat with David Thomson—the author of two dozen or so books, including a new history of directors—I asked him which Stephen Frears movie he’d recommend, and he suggested people check out Mary Reilly.
Why Frears? Frears gets a chapter in Thomson’s new book (which I strongly recommend you pick up!) because he is a working director, not a showman, not a grand visual stylist. He reminds Thomson of Casablanca’s Michael Curtiz: competent and professional with the occasional flash of greatness.
Why Mary Reilly? “For me,” Thomson writes, “it’s a movie about a fearful spirit compelled to watch a kind of horror that inspires dread and allure. It’s a metaphor for any one of us watching a frightening movie, or a compelling myth.”
Amusingly and completely proving my point, I couldn’t even remember the name of the show I was making fun of. It’s Disenchantment, not Disenchanted. Anyway, consider this my correction, apologies for the error, etc. Knives Out is probably worth two dozen Disenchantments and probably four dozen Disenchanteds.