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Schultz reviews: 'Godzilla vs. Kong' and 'The Unholy'

Schultz reviews: 'Godzilla vs. Kong' and 'The Unholy'

Carl Schultz



“Godzilla vs. Kong”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 113 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released March 31, 2021:

Anybody who’s ever said size doesn’t matter never met King Kong.

In the new “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the 365-foot ape is back in his jungle domain on prehistoric Skull Island, confined to an enormous plexiglass domain which restricts his territory.  Dr, Iline Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the anthropologist who supervises Kong’s habitat, explains to a colleague that the dome was erected as a means of ensuring the giant ape’s safety--the world’s not big enough to sustain two Alpha Titans, we’re told, and without the dome Kong’s presence would eventually lure an attack from Godzilla, Earth’s only other surviving behemoth.

The giant, radioactive Godzilla, meanwhile, has become something of a phantom.  Unseen for the past three years but possessing an apparent ability to pop up unannounced virtually anywhere in the world, the 400-foot mutant Tyrannosaur soon makes an appearance--in Pensacola, Florida, of all places.  The gargantuan monster surfaces to attack a Florida research facility operated by Apex Cybernetics, the tech company founded to solve the world’s continuing trouble with prehistoric mutant titans.

Following the attack, Apex’ founder and CEO Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) tracks down renegade scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) to recruit his assistance with a plan to finally solve the world’s titan infestation.  Recent studies have revealed that the earth actually contains a hollow core housing a prehistoric world...complete with its own energy source.  Simmons’ idea--to hire Lind to lead a mission into the Hollow Earth, locate the energy source, and tap it as a means of vanquishing Godzilla.  Sounds like a win/win, right?

Not quite--there’s a catch:  Kong’s cooperation is needed in order to guide the explorers to the energy source--an endeavor which requires removing the giant ape from his enclosed domain on Skull Island and transporting him across the world to an entry point in Antarctica, a task certain to attract the interest of Godzilla.  Apex' real motive is simple--to adapt Hollow Earth's energy source into a giant battery for Mechagodzilla, their full-size robotic replica of the giant mutant Tyrannosaur.  The objective--to employ the robot to vanquish both Kong and Godzilla...and control the world.

When you’ve already paid good money to witness an epic battle between a gigantic radioactive mutant dinosaur and an equally large gorilla, it’s probably a little late to start complaining about credibility issues.  As directed by Adam Wingard, verisimilitude is key to “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but the screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein never even attempts to portend authenticity (despite the CNN logo being used prominently during simulated newscasts).  With a storyline every bit as preposterous as any in the original Toho Godzilla series from the 1960s and 70s, the picture’s plot at times seems almost a challenge to not laugh out loud.

The real attraction of "Godzilla vs. Kong” is the computer-driven imagery...which genuinely delivers.  The handful of times the title monsters go head-to-head, the results are always persuasive, sometimes eye-popping, and occasionally even jaw-dropping, especially during an epic Tasman Sea encounter about 40 minutes into the picture which effectively reduces the US Navy's Pacific Fleet to smoking wreckage.  Because of the realistic visuals, the picture’s PG-13 rating is well-advised--older viewers might require the company of a smaller relative to reassure them it’s only make-believe.  

From the moment Mechagodzilla rears his enormous metallic head, however, the silliness quotient of the picture rockets from around 40% to somewhere north of 95%.  While the dazed and confused Kong is temporarily consigned to the sidelines, the faceoff between Godzilla and his chrome-plated doppelganger resembles nothing so much as a WWF Championship Smackdown on a titanic scale.  Kudos to the wizards at Dolby Atmos, incidentally, for the ear-splitting clarity of the creatures’ roars

There’s been some grouching among fans of the series that the subplot concerning "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" veteran Millie Bobby Brown throwing in her lot with government conspiracy theorist and podcaster Brian Tyree Henry seems...well, especially contrived, patronizing.  But in an age when a renegade political agitator can score a position as a top White House advisor and a radical right-wing provocateur is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the subplot featuring Brown and Henry might be the most believable part of the picture.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is shaping up to be the first authentic blockbuster since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, despite appearing simultaneously on the HBO Max online streaming service.  Released on Wednesday, March 31 to 2409 theaters across North America, the film expanded two days later to 3064 locations in North America, with many theaters reporting sold-out screenings.  Even with theater attendance restricted to about 40% due to lingering Covid concerns, that’s an accomplishment not achieved by such high-visibility fare as “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Greenland,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is based on--or rather inspired by--the 1962 Toho Studios feature “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” with many scenes duplicating sequences from that picture.  For those viewers keeping track of such information, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the fourth picture in Legendary Pictures’ “Monsterverse,” following 2014’s “Godzilla,” 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island,” and 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”  It’s the 36th Godzilla picture overall since 1956 and the 12th film in the King Kong franchise since 1933.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is also being displayed in some theaters in IMAX and 3D formats.  The picture is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence and some language concerns.

“The Unholy”   Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 99 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released April 02, 2021:

Is nothing sacred?   

In “The Unholy,” Banfield, Massachusetts teenager Alice, hearing-impaired and speechless since birth, miraculously gains both senses after she experiences a visitation from a spiritual entity purporting to be the Blessed Virgin event which occurs at the death-site of another Mary, an accused witch tortured and murdered by townspeople 175 years earlier.  Seeking a sensational story to peddle to the supermarket tabloids, disgraced journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffery Dean Morgan) arrives in Banfield to report the apparition...and exploit the innocent young girl at its center.

There's half of a good movie lurking inside "The Unholy."  Provocative and timely, the movie sets out to examine the role of faith during troubled times and the responsibility of the news media to report the truth versus profiting from the commercial opportunities of a sensational lie.  The traditional conventions of horror movies, while never absent entirely, are relegated at first to the periphery while the film spins a compelling yarn about an admittedly flawed journalist who unexpectedly finds redemption through a story of faith he believes to be bogus.

The central irony of “The Unholy” is that the characters most likely to profit from the alleged miracle are motivated by hypocrisy rather than authentic belief.  The local pastor (William Sadler) seeks to suppress the event in order to protect the young girl who claims to channel the Virgin Mary, and the local bishop (Cary Elwes) is compelled to publicize the miracle as a means of boosting church attendance and cash donations, while the monsignor (Diogo Morgado) dispatched by the Vatican to authenticate the event seeks instead to debunk it.  

Unfortunately, at about the picture's halfway point the picture shows its true colors, and the traditional elements of horror--creepy images, jump scares, and jittery spider-walks--begin to overtake the narrative.  Devout Catholics in the audience will likely note the picture's shortcomings before the rest of us--the Roman church lexicon is modified approximately never, and a priest "punching up" a liturgy for dramatic effect is verboten.  Also a tip-off--the bishop’s ostentatious gold jewelry.  While not entirely unknown among modern Catholic clerics, ecclesiastical bling has become decidedly scarce in recent years.

Written, produced, and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos for filmmaker Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures production company, adapted from author James Herbert’s 1983 novel “Shrine” and released just in time for Easter, it helps the picture enormously that there’s a sense of genuine avuncular warmth that develops between Jeffery Dean Morgan's corrupt journalist and newcomer Cricket Brown’s misguided prophet.  Also adding to the movie’s verisimilitude is Morgan’s accidental resemblance to a dissipated and unkempt Dan Rather.

There’s a host of provocative content in “The Unholy”--in faith-based horror fare, there usually is.  It’s only when the picture wraps itself in pretense and seeks to emulate either an expose or a document of faith that it gets in over its head.  Like an unholy hybrid of "The Exorcist," "Elmer Gantry," and "Ace in the Hole," the movie simply aims too high and misses.  Neither reverent nor blasphemous, despite heartfelt performances and a sweetly poignant denouement "The Unholy" ultimately turns out to be just an unusually effective little ghost story.  Check it out.

Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan previously sought to debunk elements of the Hebrew faith in 2012’s “The Possession,” another production from Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures.  Actor Diogo Morgado, the skeptical monsignor investigating the miracle in “The Unholy,” also played Jesus Christ in both the epic 2013 History Channel miniseries “The Bible” and the 2014 theatrical release “Son of God.”  “The Unholy” is being released in Spain with the title “Pray For Us.”

Effectively filmed on authentic locations in Sudbury, Massachusetts, “The Unholy” is rated PG-13 for violence, some horrific images, and strong language.

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