Godzilla vs Kong (directed by Adam Wingard) is, as Tracy Palmer writes, “a joy to watch,” but if you’re looking for a thoughtful iteration of Godzilla – comparable to the 1954 original or 2016 Shin Godzilla – you won’t find it here. Instead, the consensus seems to be that Godzilla vs Kong is dumb but fun. Reviewers describe it as “big, glorious, dumb fun,” as “stupid, and stupidly fun,” as “big, dumb, city-destroying fun,” or even as “the big dumb action movie we’ve been waiting for.” Even critical reviews – like this one from io9 – focus on this element: Godzilla vs Kong Can’t Be Saved, Not Even by Good, Dumb Fun. I went into the movie expecting no more than this. Monster fights! Action! GODZILLA!
What I did not expect was the amount of attention given to conspiracy theories. Director Adam Wingard describes the film as “sort of the ultimate conspiracy movie in a lot of ways.” The movie is certainly full of conspiracy theories, layering them one over another until it’s hard to make sense of where reality ends and conspiracy thinking begins. The main plot depends upon reviving a 19th century scientific idea that now only exists in the fringes of pseudoscience: the Hollow Earth.
This idea, formulated before the science of geology really existed, hypothesizes the existence of a world within the earth. It was often thought that there was a hole near the North or South Pole where people could enter the Hollow Earth. This idea was explored in many 19th century speculative fiction texts, including, for instance, Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery (1820), Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833), and Mary Lane’s Mizora (1880-1).
In addition, one of the main characters, Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) is an ex-Apex Cybernetics employee who identifies himself as “deep cover” and says he’s going to “expose a vast corporate conspiracy there.” He reports on this regularly in his podcast, Titan Truth Podcast. And while it’s easy enough to believe in corporate conspiracies – especially when the head of the company, Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), is so clearly villainous – Bernie also refuses to drink tap water because it has fluoride in it, bathes in bleach to eliminate “spy dust,” and tells others that eating GMO apples will make them sick.
In a film where the premise is that a giant prehistoric lizard with radioactive breath fights a giant ape, maybe this confusion about what’s real is to be expected. We – and the characters within the narrative – must accept a pretty huge deviation from traditional reality, after all, in order to believe in the Titans. And social science scholarship about conspiracy thinking indicates that “conspiracy beliefs are motivated by the desire to explain and find order and meaning in events that might otherwise seem random, unpredictable, or outside of one’s control.” Certainly, Bernie and the other humans of the Monsterverse face a world that is far less predictable and controllable with the presence of giant monsters. This is exacerbated by the presence of giant militarized corporations.
On the other hand, perhaps confusion about reality is not a given. After all, while there are frequently secrets to be kept within other Godzilla movies, this level of conspiracy thinking isn’t common and doesn’t usually reach outside the central plot. For a movie so focused on the surface (like visual effects) and in which the threats are obvious, the turn to conspiracy thinking intrigues me. It is, after all, a mode of thinking that does not stop at the surface and that does not accept what’s obvious to everyone else.
What really gets my attention, though, is the way these two elements – “big dumb fun” and conspiracy thinking – speak to each other. Godzilla vs Kong is a fun movie that is fundamentally about conspiracies. How, then, does Godzilla vs Kong as “big dumb fun” address the conspiracies mentioned within it? One throwaway line indicates that Roswell is real. And we get to visit the Hollow Earth, which is one of the most beautiful and effective parts of the movie. (I would watch a whole movie set there!) Plus, Bernie is likeable! Not only that, but he is one of the most interesting characters in the movie, and he’s introduced as a hero in the end. As Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) tells her dad, “This is the man who saved our lives.” These moments seem to lend credence to conspiracy thinking – in principle, even if not in the specific details.
In a time when people believe that vaccines are trackers implanted by the government and COVID-19 is a hoax, it’s hard to take such thinking lightly. Sylas K. Barrett writes for Tor that “considering today’s anti-vaccine, anti-science movements, it seems irresponsible to give these opinions to a hero character whose other theories are proven right . . . even in a relatively mindless action film.”
On the other hand, Bernie is clearly fringe – even Madison’s friend Josh (Julian Dennison) doesn’t take him seriously – and his last line is an interrupted invitation to her dad to be a guest on his podcast. And he doesn’t really save Madison and Josh, despite her claim. He and his kooky ideas put them in danger (they wouldn’t have been in Hong Kong during the monster fight without his help breaking into the facility in Florida), and he is not the one who takes action to stop Mechagodzilla. Josh does, while Bernie is resigned to his fate.
And even though the Hollow Earth scenery is cool (seriously – so cool) this functions less as a reinforcement of fringe pseudoscience to be taken seriously and more as a reference point to earlier science fiction and fantasy but also an expansion of its possibilities. As Adam Wingard indicated in an interview with IGN, “I didn’t want it to be just caves”; instead, he wanted it to feel like a journey to an alien planet.
Ultimately, then, the question remains: Is Godzilla vs Kong a critique or embrace of conspiracy thinking? It’s hard to tell. The movie is confused – just like its ideas. Alissa Wilkinson’s description for the film for Vox is perfect: “Mild bafflement reigns throughout.”
Despite the confusion, for me, this dumb fun starts to raise serious questions when it makes space for dumb conspiracies, too.
Christy Tidwell is Associate Professor of English & Humanities at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She writes about science fiction and horror both as an academic and as a fan, including in Gothic Nature and Horror Homeroom.