Just what the world needs. Another white guy complaining on the internet about movies that someone else made, right? Clearly, I have never written / directed a $200M product inside the mainstream studio system. I can’t claim to know the intricacies of how a movie like this comes into existence, the twists and turns, and the enormous pressures a writer / director is under from every direction during such a political process. Perhaps the act of writing becomes the last thing on your mind in that job position.
So… as merely an indie screenwriter with only a couple of animated projects released, I’m here to say I didn’t like the movie.
It’s OK. Don’t be mad. It’s was a great opportunity for me to dig deeper and understand why I didn’t like it, and try to improve it myself (see below).
What went wrong with Godzilla Vs. Kong, in my opinion? It feels like the writing process suffered from too many cooks. The individual writers all seem at least competent (!), and from what I know the process was originally overseen by Terry Rossio, a highly-successful screenwriter. So it’s hard for me to blame the writers themselves. In addition, the previous movies in the franchise were solid. (I love performance of John C. Reilly in Kong: Skull Island, and the grown-up directing work of Gareth Edwards on Godzilla from 2014.)
What happened this time around is beyond me, but I imagine it was some sort of corporate meddling. It’s understandable that with so much money at stake, a LOT of people wanted a hand in it. Do THIS in the movie, no, do THAT in the movie, change writers a bunch of times, and you could end up with a big mess like this. Maybe they blew a lot of the budget filming one version and decided to rewrite it halfway through? No idea.
What I don’t get is why it is so highly-praised. The excuse I hear from fans and reviewers is a sincere “This is exactly what we need: a big dumb popcorn spectacle movie that sacrifices the writing to focus on big monsters fighting.” Yet this is the first in the “Legendary Monsterverse” series that suffered in the writing department. I don’t believe the action movie genre requires poor dialogue, head-scratchers, and endless story problems that any screenwriting student learns how to avoid. Sounds like a cop-out to me?
Yet, people generally love it. So what can I do other than say I have different tastes?
The film begins with a teaser that is not too good. And for a few reasons.
It goes like this:
Kong wakes up on Skull Island, scratches his butt, and takes a shower under a waterfall — all to what my wife called “Hipster Music.” It’s actually Over The Mountain, Across The Sea by Bobby Vinton (1963).
I get that they were trying to be ironic and setting up a tonal counterpoint. Big monster + lighthearted music. OK, fine. Cute. It’s not your typical monster movie teaser. It’s a bit of a James Gunn vibe, and I’m sure many viewers were delighted by it. It simply didn’t land for me, especially when flowing into the consequent scenes. (Contrast this with the teaser of Kong: Skull Island, which was far more cinematic, mysterious, and engaging… setting the tone for the rest of the film. That’s what a teaser should do. Add to that, artful use of visual storytelling / ZERO dialogue, a plus!)
Anyway, this teaser plain-old didn’t belong in the movie that follows. Felt clunky.
Second, this is what I refer to as a Compound Scene. Rather than a single, focused scene with a clear purpose / conflict / goal, we have multiple scenes glued together in the same location. They don’t belong and flow. Here they are:
1 – Kong waking up, scratching butt, showering.
2 – Jia, a little girl, is crafting something.
3 – Kong rips a tree out of the ground and strips the roots and branches from it.
4 – Jia, the little girl, enters scene, interacts with Kong. She’s deaf.
5 – Kong throws the tree, like a javelin, through the containment wall.
6 – Dr. Andrews interacts with a guy. (His name is Ben, I think.)
7 – Jia enters, interrupts Dr. Andrews and Ben.
8 – Dr. Andrews interacts again with Ben. Cut to Main Titles.
This whole teaser runs from 00:01:00 to 00:04:38. About 3.5 minutes, with 8 different mini-scenes! Now, is this wrong, in and of itself? No. I imagine it can be done, and done well (although I can’t think of an example right now). It simply didn’t work here. It felt like a hodgepodge of good ideas that all got jammed together after endless drafts by multiple writers who came and went. Maybe a producer or executive said, “I have an idea, let’s combine all the teasers we have into one. No, seriously. Stop laughing at me. Go do what I said, or you’re fired.” (Are people in the film industry as crazy as they are in other industries? I would assume yes!)
While watching the first time, my immediate thought was “Oh, cool! A deaf little girl (Jia) is the new human female Kong is in love with? This is a novel idea. Can’t wait to see how this plays out.” Unfortunately, that idea was barely exploited in the film. Jia has a few scenes with Kong but like most of the characters, has little impact on the story or plot. Oh, well.
OK, let’s step back and look at what this scene is trying to accomplish.
1 – Hook the viewer (the main goal of a teaser).
2 – Introduce Kong.
3 – Introduce other main characters: Jia, Dr. Andrews, and Ben.
4 – Set up problem: Kong can’t stay in this containment area much longer.
Let’s focus on #4, because this is the core “plot” purpose of the scene: there is a problem that needs solving. The clock is slowly ticking. Kong is going to eventually destroy the place.
Here are my questions and complaints:
a. Why is Kong being kept in this Truman Show-esque containment thing? Did I miss something? There’s a storm outside? Was there a movie I didn’t see before this? At some point, we learn that the storm that surrounds Skull Island has wreaked havoc, wiping out the entire population of Iwi people, except for Jia. Why? I don’t know. Regardless, this is all exposition: we don’t experience it in the present moment. It’s hard to put this all together from what we see in the scene. It’s disorienting in a bad way.
b. Regarding this guy Ben, who only has a first name… does he even appear anywhere else in the movie? I don’t remember. If not, then why is he here? Why did we write a character into the teaser if he serves no purpose to the story? As a writer, I would be more economical than this. Have him turn out to be the villain? At least something more than just ceasing to exist.
c. Aside from being painful exposition in which the characters state facts like they’re robots, the dialogue between Dr. Andrews and Ben has very little drama. They don’t have opposing viewpoints / conflicting goals. To create more interest, they should disagree. One should want to keep Kong in the containment site. One should want him to be set free, or to contain him somewhere else. Ben’s opinion on this subject isn’t clear.
d. If Kong were to break out of this containment site, what would happen? Dr. Andrews states the fact that “Godzilla will come for him.” Dun dun dun! Well, alright. But that’s not quite visceral and imminent. It’s someone talking about something that might happen at some point somewhere else. We’re not even sure if that’s entirely a bad thing. What are the stakes here? Two monsters will beat each other up out in the ocean?
What I would do is start with the purpose of the scene and work backwards, and strive for clarity. Either way, this scene is not teaser material. In the next scene they drug him and stick him on a boat, where he is immediately attacked by Godzilla anyway, so it’s all pointless. Add to that, nothing really BAD happens as a consequence. Godzilla beats up Kong and then swims away. What a climax.
Upon watching the teaser several times, the thing that bugged me the most was the dialogue between Dr. Andrews and Ben. That’s an inexpensive thing to fix, right? Even if we keep the scene basically the same, better dialogue can help.
Note: I find that blatant exposition / on-the-nose dialogue / stating facts totally works in animation (like Metalocalypse) or weirdo comedy (like Idiocracy) or any documentary with a narrator. But it is awful in a drama. And I consider a movie like Godzilla vs. Kong to be a drama. Characters should talk like real people. We’re observing, from inside the scene, under the spell. The characters in a drama don’t need to give us facts — that breaks the spell. Would Person A really say this to Person B in real life? If not, find another way. That’s my opinion, anyway.
As I said, it’s as if these two characters in the teaser scene are just reciting facts. Any time I see dialogue in the form of “here’s a fact” I try to find a better solution.
As an exercise, and to maybe learn something, I decided to rewrite the Dr. Andrews + Ben portion of the scene myself. I took about 30 minutes and banged out 4 new versions. These are just drafts of ideas, but I’ll break each one down and add some commentary.
Up first, here it is, in its original form, along with my specific complaints:
1 – Notice that the first line is idiotic. “Dr. Andrews, did you see that?” Yeah, I think Dr. Andrews, who was standing right there, saw the giant gorilla smash a tree through the virtual sky.
2 – Dr. Andrews responds with a fact: “The habitat’s not going to hold much longer.” Alright, we can already SEE that. And I would assume that everyone involved at the containment site already knows that, too. But at least the problem they’re facing has been stated, so we at least know what the scene is about? Eh.
3 – “We need to start thinking about off-site solutions.” Aha! Ben is making a suggestion about solving the problem that Dr. Andrews just named. Still, this is not in conflict with what Dr. Andrews said. For all we know, up to now, they are in total agreement, which makes the two characters in the scene redundant. It may as well be Dr. Andrews talking to herself.
4 – This is where we get more robotic and even disjointed. “The island is the one thing that’s kept him isolated. If he leaves, Godzilla will come for him.” OK, those are facts. Not very dramatic. Why do we need to keep him isolated in this thing? And what’s so bad about Godzilla coming for him? And then suddenly we have: “There can’t be two alpha Titans.” What? Why would she say this out of nowhere to Ben? It doesn’t belong. And even worse: “The whole theory of an ancient rivalry stems from Iwi mythology.” If I were Ben, I’d wonder what’s wrong with her, reading an encyclopedia entry at me. It feels like a bad video edit. Does not flow at all. I would cut those lines completely.
So, what can we do with this thing? Here’s my first attempt at a new version.
1 – Let’s put Dr. Andrews in conflict with someone. I made up a jerk named General Whitlock. A hot-heated military dude. This is not unusual to pair up with a scientist. Right off the bat, he shows up and argues with her. He’s talking down to her, and introducing a threat of violence against Kong, which by this point, she is probably used to. He’s putting on his usual show of machismo, and she shrugs it off. He’s trying to press her buttons and looking for trouble.
2 – We leave the Jia interruption as it was, although ideally I’d cut it.
3 – Boom. General Whitlock drops the axe. “Too late. We’re moving it to a stronger cage.” It’s already done. The plot is advancing. We have conflict. Dr. Andrews is shocked / pissed. Whitlock responds with a button / scene ending that shows he’s actually looking forward to more violence and war.
OK, that introduces a new major character that is at odds with Dr. Andrews. He’s probably going to be around for the entire movie, and causing major difficulties! So let’s try backing that off with another version…
1 – Later in the movie, we find out the little deaf girl, Jia, has taught Kong sign language. (This being done in secret is… implausible, by the way.) But my thought was, let’s cut some characters out. Eliminate Jia and make Dr. Andrews herself the Kong Whisperer (as the magazine cover in a later scene shows us). So, we start with Dr. Andrews trying her best to calm Kong down, and making little progress.
2 – Instead of Ben, we have another scientist named Dr. Hale. He’s a superior to her in this “big monkey containment project.” Dr. Andrews already knows that Dr. Hale is here to complain. He’s probably been doing this regularly. She assumes he is here to criticize her efforts.
3 – Like General Whitlock above, he also drops the axe and moves the plot forward. They’re in instant conflict. Dr. Hale is taking Kong off the island, and Dr. Andrews doesn’t like that. She wants to succeed in communicating with Kong in sign language. At the very least, he is undermining her professional role. She’s a famous scientist, she came here to do her job, and he’s getting in her way.
4 – His button / scene ending “And we’ll be ready when he does” suggests they have a plan, which has not been revealed yet. What is the plan? We want to know.
Again, this changes the rest of the story. Because now Dr. Hale is a central character that is going to be in conflict with Dr. Andrews.
What if, instead of introducing new characters that affect the story, I just edit the dialogue a bit and clean up the scene? Here, I kept Ben and tried not to change anything else.
1 – It seems like, first of all, Ben should ask Dr. Andrews if she is OK. I mean, Kong is right there ripping trees out of the ground and throwing a tantrum. Feels more natural as a first line than, “Did you see that?”
2 – “I’m fine, it’s the big guy I’m worried about.” Right away, establish that Dr. Andrews is NOT fragile (she’s a pro), and even cares about Kong. She understands that Kong is acting up because he feels trapped.
3 – Ben cuts to the chase. He states his intention. “We’ve got to move him.” He has a goal, and it’s clearly in conflict with her goal.
4 – I left the rest the same. The whole thing about “The island is the one thing that’s kept him isolated. If he leaves, Godzilla WILL come for him” is still clunky to me. I’m sure there’s a better way to convey that information, but the scene is already so confusing that it’s at least creating some clarity. Still, if you have to use dialogue for clarity, you’ve probably got bigger writing issues. (As you probably know by now, I’d scrap the whole scene, and the whole movie if it were up to me.)
I tried one more version, putting a SHADY SCIENTIST in the scene with her.
1 – I imagine Dr. Hale as Loki / Tom Hiddleston. (Coincidence, he was in the previous Kong movie, hey!) I’ve now changed the scene around so that the scientists are here to observe not only Kong, but also JIA. They’re standing back and watching the little girl and the giant gorilla interacting. Opening on this establishes that Kong and Jia’s relationship is a major key to the story and plot. (As opposed to its bizarre unimportance in the movie we ended up with.)
2 – Dr. Hale lands on a semi-cheesy button and reveals his mischievous intentions. He wants to use Jia to make Kong do something. Most likely something bad! Uh oh! Once again, this seriously alters the rest of the movie.
But there it is, my little writing exercise. Documenting this process in the form of a blog honestly took a lot more time than writing a few new experimental drafts of the scene.
There are numerous other story / writing problems with this movie. The biggest of all: the story thread of the conspiracy theorist and Millie Bobby Brown’s character accomplishes nothing. I don’t understand why they cast such a big star, then had her run around contributing very little to the actual story or plot. It’s as if that thread originally led to something, but the intent was lost when they changed writers or rewrote / edited the film. Obvious suggestion: cut half the characters and have HER interact with Kong.
The bottom line: with the budget they had, it’s hard for me to believe the finished product is the best they could come up with for a teaser scene (and of course, the rest of the movie). But hey, who the heck am I?