When Titans Clash, Again

In which Norm spins up GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE, which is massive, and THE KING TIDE, which is rather more modest.

When Titans Clash, Again

Ten years ago, Gareth Edwards’ brilliant 2014 monster movie reimagined Godzilla as an unstoppable force, a walking natural disaster beyond human control. It was just dumb luck that he was on our side. Like Ishiro Honda before him, and Takashi Yamazaki after him, Edwards saw Godzilla as something incomprehensible, finding both terror and awe in the concept. (We may have geeked out about it at the time.)

But awe is unsustainable, and the larger Legendary’s Monsterverse project grew, the less sense that version of Godzilla made. As soon as he wasn’t a random threat – once it was understood that he exists to keep the kaiju peace on Earth – he became a supporting character in his own stories, with the more relatable Kong emerging as a leading man in their team-up projects. Kong can have an arc; Godzilla is just Godzilla, and it’s up to the bystanders to figure him out.

So it’s no surprise that Adam Wingard’s Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire once again focuses on the Kong-centric world introduced three years ago in his first Legendary project, Godzilla Vs. Kong. These days, Kong is down in the kingdom of Hollow Earth, fighting smaller monsters as a distraction but still searching for other giant apes he can hang with.

Back on Skull Island, he had his human pals Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) – herself the last of her kind, being the sole surviving member of the island’s indigenous Iwi people – but now that Kong is under the earth’s surface, they’ve left the island for a mainland Monarch base where Edwards can continue her work and Jia … goes to high school.

Obviously this peace cannot last, and so it happens that Kong – after coming topside to get a tooth fixed by Trapper (Dan Stevens), the world’s only Titan veterinarian – discovers a sub-level of Hollow Earth where other giant apes have been living all along, under the thumb of a tyrant known as the Skar King, who commands a Titan of his own.

How does Kong face that challenge? Well, it just so happens that Godzilla has been criss-crossing the planet, picking fights with other Titans to absorb their raw power, beefing himself up for some mysterious purpose. The King of the Monsters works in mysterious ways.

That’s the entirety of The New Empire’s plot, which turns out to be considerably less complicated than the last couple of Monsterverse movies; there are no nefarious human conspiracies to control Titans or build a Mechagodzilla. There are no human villains at all, in fact; everybody wants the same thing, to understand and live in harmony with the Titans.

Monster blogger Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) is the closest thing we have to an expository character, but even he frequently admits he has no idea what he’s doing; Trapper is around to be this movie’s wild card, though I suspect the character is here because Wingard texted his pal Dan Stevens and asked if he wanted to come and play.

This guy gets it.

And this is the key to Wingard’s kaiju movies: He wants them to be fun. Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island and Michael Dougherty's Godzilla, King of the Monsters steered Legendary’s project away from the grandeur of Edwards’ Godzilla, making their Titan smackdowns more audience-friendly, and Wingard is a filmmaker who loves to play with our ideas of genre. As in You’re Next and The Guest and even his underrated Blair Witch sequel, his movies celebrate the idea of a monster movie, giving us preposterous confrontations in familiar locations and just going nuts. Ever wonder if Godzilla could fit in the Colosseum? Or where the beachfront properties of Rio de Janeiro could withstand a monster battle? This movie will answer those questions.

It's also just plain fun to realize that these films have progressed to the point that entire sequences can be played out between kaiju characters without any human interpretation. All the scenes of Kong in Hollow Earth – discovering the other apes, figuring out what’s going on and deciding to take action against the Skar King – are told entirely from Kong’s perspective, without spoken dialogue or subtitles. (We learned last time that Jia taught him ASL, but none of the other apes understands it.)

It’s remarkable how much information is conveyed without a single word, and how much of these scenes play emotionally for Kong. It’s also very, very funny to watch Kong’s initial attempt to recruit Godzilla to his cause, doing everything he can not to provoke a frenemy who really, really doesn’t like him.

That’s what I want from these movies, anyway, a few new angles on an old premise. Godzilla Minus One has shown us that serious, scary Godzilla movies are still possible, and the first season of Apple’s streaming series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has filled in the space between the first two Godzilla movies with a surprisingly rich human story, played across more than half a century of the Monarch project. I was a little surprised that none of the characters from the show made it into The New Empire – well, except for Godzilla – but that’s okay. They’re probably off having their own adventures.

Warner’s 4K presentation of The New Empire (the Blu-ray is available separately) is a beauty, with vivid colors, exacting skin, fur and scale detail, and a literally banging Dolby Atmos soundtrack – there are more distinctly rendered crashes, thuds and slams in this movie than in anything I’ve seen all year.

The lush, impossible vistas of Hollow Earth look even more tactile than they did last time, and if I have one complaint about those visuals it’s got nothing to do with the transfer; it’s just that from certain angles, the little orange guy Kong befriends looks distractingly like Morty Smith from Rick and Morty. Maybe it’s an in-joke between Warner properties; I just thought it was a weird choice.

Extras include a chatty audio commentary from Wingard, production designer Tom Hammock, effects supervisor Alessandro Ongaro and editor Josh Schaeffer, and about a dozen short featurettes – none longer than six minutes – that add up to over an hour of small, specific looks at various aspects of the film. Which isn’t bad, but each piece can’t help but feel a little superficial, cutting to black just as we want to know more.

Elsewhere on the shelf, though in no way gargantuan – in fact, it’s the opposite, a modest movie-only release of a small Canadian drama – is VVS’ Blu-ray edition of Christian Sparkes’ The King Tide. And I would be remiss if I didn’t shout it out, for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, it’s a rare instance of a Canadian distributor mastering and releasing a physical edition of a Canadian film without drafting on a parallel American release; VVS is releasing The King Tide just because. And I’m really glad, because this is a beautiful film that really benefits from the extra bitrate of a disc; the eeriness of its setting, the fullness of the soundtrack … it’s all just richer than the streaming version, which struggles to properly do justice to Mike McLaughlin's palette of natural light, flame and old wood.

And while there’s nothing on the Blu-ray besides the film, that film is pretty good: Set entirely on a tiny island off the Maritime coast, it’s a magic-realist drama focusing on childless couple Bobby (Clayne Crawford) and Grace (Lara Jean Chorostecki), who take in a miraculous infant when she washes ashore in a storm and raise the girl as their own for a decade.

Isla (Alix West Lefler) is capable of doing remarkable things – healing the sick, drawing schools of fish into the harbor – and she’s happy to use them for the good of the community. But when her powers begin to falter, the townsfolk – rallied by Grace’s true-believer mother (Frances Fisher) –start pressuring Bobby and Grace to find a way to keep the miracles coming.

It’s a story about the weaponization of belief, and how communities that deliberately remove themselves from the larger world can’t help but develop their own mythology. Isla’s powers are real, but they – and she – are morally neutral; it’s what the islanders want to do with her that defines The King Tide’s outcome. I really appreciated the slow, unsettled tension Sparkes brings to the film, letting us see how each choice stacks up on the last, and the sense of not-quite-now that suffuses the whole story. The film is set in the present day, but we’re watching a legend take shape.

The other thing about The King Tide is that it happens to be one of the films I programmed at TIFF last year, and as such the Blu-ray feels like a little piece of my life on the shelf. I understand Humanist Vampire Seeking Consensual Suicidal Person is also out on disc; I’ll have to pick that up sometime.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is available now in individual 4K and Blu-ray editions from Warner Home Entertainment; there’s also a combo steelbook. The King Tide is available on Blu-ray from VVS Films.

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