April 23, 2021

Why Godzilla vs. Kong saved cinema, not Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s film baffled audiences – all they wanted in this most bewildering of years was to see a giant ape and a dinosaur going at it for 15 rounds

In any other year, Godzilla vs. Kong could be filed as just another bloated, unoriginal franchise flick. But this hasn’t been any other year. It’s a year that has seen trips to the movies stolen away by a global pandemic, as all blockbuster releases have either been postponed or shifted to a streaming-only release. This being the case, Godzilla vs. Kong has been welcomed as a thunderous return for the big-screen experience. And the numbers show it. The fourth film in Legendary’s MonsterVerse raked in more than £206m ($285m) at the worldwide box office during its opening days, the highest debut of any American film in the pandemic era. There is a strong chance that it could outperform MonsterVerse’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which was a financial disappointment in the pre-pandemic era in 2019, grossing $383m worldwide during one of Hollywood’s most lucrative years.

The joy with which Godzilla has been hailed contrasts with the muted response to the highest-performing Hollywood film during the pandemic: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. After a seemingly endless number of delays to its release, Tenet was hyped by both the industry and the press as the film that would “save cinema”. For good reason: it was a new big-screen outing for a director who pushes the technological limits of film-making, bedazzling audiences with advancements in visuals, sound and cinematography. Everything Nolan touches turns to gold, it seems.

Except, not this time. When Tenet was released in August last year, it failed to set cinemas alight. Perhaps it was because audiences continued to doubt whether returning to the big screen was worth risking exposure to the virus. Or possibly because Tenet is a two-and-a-half hour flex with a bewildering storyline draped in technical razzle dazzle. Most likely, it was a mixture of both.Its global total didn’t even reach that of Nolan’s previous film, the “difficult” second world war picture Dunkirk. So much for saving cinema.

Godzilla vs. Kong has instead romped ahead not as the hero we deserve, but the hero we need. It has chalked up $200m worldwide in half the time that it took Tenet, enjoying a wider release in places where the virus is under control such as China and New Zealand. Godzilla vs. Kong has also been helped by a slightly wider release in the US compared with Tenet, which opened to tighter restrictions in most states and wasn’t able to open at all in California or New York. The hype surrounding Godzilla vs. Kong is different too. With ever-changing release dates, and Nolan’s quixotic insistence on releasing the film in cinemas whatever the cost, the buildup to Tenet was characterised by stubbornness and frustration. By contrast, when the trailer for Godzilla vs. Kong dropped in January and drew in tens of millions of views, it became rapidly apparent that a giant ape fighting a colossal lizard is exactly what the doctor ordered. Does it bravely push artistic and technical boundaries? No. Does it matter? Not really.

Unlike Tenet, the belief that a great ape and a dinosaur going at it for 15 rounds might save cinema only started to gain traction after the film’s release. Rather than forcing something complicated and messy on exhausted cinephiles and punters, Godzilla vs. Kong is a simplistic slice of escapist heaven. A film that might otherwise have been forgotten has romped effortlessly to the rescue where Tenet tried too hard to be the hero.

Godzilla vs. Kong speaks volumes about what it will take to keep the movies alive. Something that makes you forget about the outside world, rather than have you longing to go back to it. Cinema is in too perilous a place right now to be stuck up on a high horse. If it takes brainless kaiju carnage to reignite love for the big screen, then we are not really in a position to complain.