As any regular reader of this column knows, I’m a big King Kong guy. The original 1933 King Kong was the first movie that made a big impression on me and I even wrote a book on the origins and cinematic history of the character a few years back. So needless to say I was interested to check out the newly released Godzilla vs. Kong – the latest entry in the Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures Monsterverse series. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. I’m not terribly surprised, as I didn’t think much of its predecessor, Kong: Skull Island, which was made by the same team. This one is an improvement, although not by much.
Watching the film, two writing and filmmaking-related ideas occurred to me that I thought would be worth relaying here. The first was the confirmation that when it comes to screen storytelling, less is more.
One of the common knocks on genre and B movies is that they have no story – they’re just a bunch of set pieces and nothing else. This is not a criticism that can be applied to Godzilla vs. Kong. It has too much story -- WAY too much story. Or rather it has a bunch of ideas for stories.
Now, I don’t know how it got that way. I don’t necessarily blame the writers (story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields; screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein). One of the problems in modern script development, especially when it comes to franchise movies, is the “too many cooks” syndrome. On these big-budget (potential) blockbusters, writers not only get input from the producers and the director but also from a platoon of studio executives anxious about their massive investment and who can each have a laundry list of different ideas about things that they think will improve the movie’s box office chances and insist be incorporated. In recent years, this problem has been exacerbated by the introduction of franchise writers rooms – studios hire a bunch of big-name screenwriters to get together and brainstorm ideas for the films in a particular franchise. These give the executives and producers and directors even more ideas that they may insist be incorporated. The results are scripts that are jam-packed with ideas and concepts, but that don’t have the room to develop them.
This is certainly not my original observation, but when it comes to narrative, movies are more akin to short stories than they are to novels. Novels have a (relatively) unlimited running time – they can run for as few or as many pages as the novelists need to tell their tales. Therefore they have lots of room to tackle as many ideas and concepts as they want to. Movies are usually limited to a run-time of between ninety minutes and two-ish hours, which is really not very much time when it comes to narrative.
Feature films tend to work best when they focus on a single core idea and develop it to its fullest in order to get the most out of its dramatic potential and entertainment potential. Features can sustain one or two subplots, but only if they directly support or augment the main premise. When features try to tackle more than they tend to, they become unfocused and confusing and hard to follow.
This is what happens in Godzilla vs. Kong. The film contains one marvelous notion: the character of a young deaf girl who teaches Kong sign language, which allows the two to communicate with one another. This is a wonderful idea because any good Kong movie requires the giant ape to have a connection with a human, preferably a human female to bring out the monster’s tender heart. If the movie had focused on this concept and worked it into the conflict with Godzilla, this movie could have worked like gangbusters. Unfortunately, very little is done with it, and instead, the writers cram in a million other ideas: a lot of pointless servicing of Monarch, the secret organization that has served as the link between all of the Monsterverse films; the discovery of a magical land located in Earth’s hollow core; an alternate history of Kong and his kind as ancient warriors who had once created and maintained an elaborate civilization; a manic tech scavenger hunt; the machinations of an evil CEO who creates an evil robot Godzilla; among many others.
As it tries to juggle all these ideas, the movie quickly becomes so convoluted that in more than one scene the characters literally have to shout exposition at one another to clue the audience in as to what’s going on and why the characters are doing what they’re doing because otherwise, the viewers wouldn’t have a clue. Eventually, the whole thing collapses into a puddle of narrative slush.
Ultimately, maybe none of this matters – maybe all audiences care about is the monster fights and the narrative that occurs in between the fights is irrelevant. But if that’s the case, I would be really sad. And this brings me to my second point – that “popcorn” movies don’t have to be bad movies.
I’m not really sure what makes a movie a “popcorn” movie, but generally, the term applies to genre or B movies meant to serve as light entertainment (as opposed, I guess, to heavier fare meant to be “serious”).
Anyway, there’s a notion I hear quite often – and that I hear more and more the worse these blockbuster franchise movies become – that if you criticize one of these films as not having a good story or characters or dialogue that you are some sort of elitist snob who can’t enjoy the fun things in life and refuses to let others enjoy them as well. “Lighten up,” the notion goes. “It’s just a popcorn movie.” I’ve read and heard this sentiment a lot in response to the many bad reviews that Godzilla vs. Kong received.
This is a perspective I just don’t understand. Some of the greatest “popcorn” movies of all time are also very good movies – with great characters, compelling stories that make sense, and potent dialogue. Films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Die Hard, The Matrix, and so on. Why would anyone want to settle for table scraps when they could have sumptuous meals like these?
I usually just shrug when I hear the “It’s just a popcorn movie” line expressed by regular moviegoers. I get annoyed when I hear it coming from screenwriters and other filmmakers and other people who should know better. The irritation comes from my feeling that the low bar for “popcorn” is a way of excusing shoddy or sometimes just plain lazy work on their part.
When we write, it is our job to set the bar high, as high as we possibly can for everything we do, whether we are working on a “serious” movie or an entertainment. That is the only way we have even a chance of producing something great in whatever realm we are toiling, be it Oscar bait or popcorn pictures. And that should always be the goal. There are enough bad movies as it is – why intentionally make more?
Even if we work hard and do our best, things won’t always work out, of course – not every film is going to be great. But it is important that we always aim high.
Hey, if Kong didn’t aim high, he never would have made it to the top of the Empire State Building.
Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton
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