A colossal radioactive lizard and a giant ape may do what Christopher Nolan, Mulan and Wonder Woman couldn’t: help a hamstrung international box office get back on its feet.
After a year of dispirit ticket sales, cinema operators have been on the lookout for the next big hard-hitter to pull them out of their pandemic-inflicted slump.
Between Nolan's time-warping Tenet, the live-action remake of Disney's Mulan and Patty Jenkins's superhero sequel Wonder Woman 1984, the film industry's revival seemed like a sure thing. But three of the most anticipated films of 2020 barely managed to break even at the box office.
There were a number of reasons for this. Audiences were understandably still wary of flocking back to the cinemas, and many theatres across the world remained closed. And where they were open, social distancing measures prevented venues from operating at full capacity. Films such as Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 were being released on streaming services as well, allowing viewers to enjoy them in the safety of their own homes.
Perhaps the films themselves may have had something to do with the disappointing turnout as well. Tenet, it is generally agreed among critics, was an overly convoluted cinematic exercise for its director; Mulan fell far short of the beloved classic; and Wonder Woman 1984 raked in mediocre reviews. With the three films being the best blockbusters 2020 had to offer, maybe it's no surprise the box office slump persisted to this year.
But now – as Godzilla vs Kong released across cinemas in the UAE last weekend – things not only seem to be picking up, but we also got to see something we hadn't seen in over a year: an opening weekend packed with sold-out screenings. Of course, cinemas are still operating at half-capacity, but the sight of back-to-back booked-out showtimes bodes well.
The monster brawl film, which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, cost $200 million to make, has raked more than $120 million internationally in the week since its release, and it only hits cinemas in the US today. The lion's share of its earnings so far has come from China, which accounts for about $70m.
That's not to say Godzilla vs Kong is the highest-performing film of the year. So far, it ranks fourth behind three Chinese films, including Hi, Mom, which made a whopping $821m since it released in February; Detective Chinatown 3, which made almost $690m in the last three months; and A Writer's Odyssey, which made just over $150m in the same time period. James Cameron's 2009 otherworldly adventure Avatar also recently made headlines again as it once again became the highest-grossing film of all time at the global box office, largely because of its China reissue.
Still, Godzilla vs Kong is Hollywood's most lucrative 2021 offering so far.
To put its earnings in context, Tenet – which, according to The Observer, needed at least $450m to break even – managed to make a total of just over $350m since it hit cinemas in a staggered global launch last summer. Mulan came next and the film's poor performance was surprising even by pandemic standards, having raked in $70m in total at the global box office. Wonder Woman 1984 didn't do much better; though the film made the highest box office opening during the pandemic – earning about $16m in North America when it was released in cinemas over Christmas – its overall financial performance has been a bit of a disappointment. It cost $200m to make and raked in a total of $165.2m worldwide, a bitter result considering its 2017 predecessor lassoed in more than $822m.
So what is it about Godzilla vs Kong that is encouraging audiences to return to cinemas in droves?
Well, one thing to take into account is the availability of Covid-19 vaccines. As more and more people get vaccinated, the prospect of congregating in a closed cinema space doesn't seem as ominous any more.
But the nature of Godzilla vs Kong is something to consider as well. The film, which stars Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown and Atlanta actor Brian Tyree Henry, is essentially a two-hour boxing match between two enormous and terrifying animals. It may be replete with plot holes and eye-roll-worthy dialogue, but when the film pits the two hulking monsters against each other, you get every bit the thrilling, awe-inspiring fist (and tail) fight you came to see – and more. The film packs no surprises, no plot twists, no maladroitly doled life lesson. And for that, it's the perfect film to reel audiences back to cinemas. Seen on the big screen and with surround sound, it is escapism at its finest.
It is, of course, still full of tropes and lacks substance, and is yet another instalment in a long line of Godzilla and King Kong films, some of which – when not employing reductive stereotypical characters – were interesting allegories about nuclear weapons, imperialism and colonialism.
All things considered, though, Godzilla vs Kong is bringing much-needed optimism in the industry's comeback. And that's not something to roll your eyes at.