Godzilla vs. Kong
Review originally published in the April 2021 issue of Film Score Monthly
I hope you have your brackets filled out, because the time has come to find out which of our two favourite monsters will take the crown. Since the release of Kong: Skull Island back in 2015, a match up between Godzilla and Kong appeared to be imminent, and now the patience of many a kaiju fan will be rewarded. Directed by Adam Wingard, Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth movie in Legendary’s MonsterVerse franchise.
Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg (A.K.A. Junkie XL) was hired to score the film, with additional music provided by Antonio Di Iorio. The producer / multi-instrumentalist / DJ has been in high demand for Hollywood blockbusters since his explosive work on Mad Max: Fury Road, taking on the latest Terminator, Sonic the Hedgehog, Scoob!, and most recently Zack Snyder’s Justice League, released only two weeks before Godzilla vs. Kong. A self-professed Godzilla freak, Holkenborg ran into Wingard by happenstance only a few years back, giving him a chance to share his enthusiasm for the giant lizard. The composer had long ago prepared a Godzilla theme in his spare time, and it was this early demo that landed him the gig.
Though MonsterVerse is a comparatively young franchise where shared universes are concerned, there is an impressive line-up of composers to contend with. Alexandre Desplat wrote a mesmerizing display of awe and discovery for the 2014 Godzilla, influenced by early monster movies and Japanese minimalism. Henry Jackman wrote a Vietnam-era, psychedelic, jungle warfare style score for the 2017 Kong: Skull Island and Bear McCreary wrote a heavy metal tribute score for the 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters, reviving several early Godzilla themes along the way.
Holkenborg has claimed a deep respect toward the original Godzilla and Kong musical material, and it was out of this respect that he thought it best to write new themes for Godzilla vs. Kong, claiming that reviving older music “would not work.” Recent interviews with the composer demonstrate some disdain toward this approach, particularly in reference to Danny Elfman’s use of existing superhero themes in the 2017 Justice League and Bear McCreary’s revival of Godzilla themes in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Personally, I loved McCreary’s revival, and Holkenborg’s aversion to the past in this regard is easily my biggest criticism of his score for Godzilla vs. Kong. After all, what better way to celebrate film history than by reviving older themes when they are made available to us and seeing how far we have come?
A refusal to embrace the past out of respect for the past is a contradiction in terms. If it is a question of ‘modernizing’ a theme so as to suit the musico-cinematic sensibilities of today, then there is no shortage of methods by which this can be achieved. Plus, thematic revival can be innovative when used creatively, as was the case in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, where the Godzilla theme inspired a primordial authority. The Batman and Superman themes meanwhile, revived in the 2017 Justice League, lent a much-needed sense of Old Testament justice to the story. They worked just fine.
Curiously, Holkenborg’s new theme for Godzilla (“Penascola, Florida”) is strikingly similar to an earlier theme written for the monster, which I will refer to as the ‘Rampage’ theme. The Rampage theme was first written by Akira Ifukube for the 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla, resurrected as a battle cry by Koichi Sugiyama for the 1989 Godzilla vs. Biollante, and cemented as the ‘call to arms’ by Ifukube in the 1991 Godzilla vs. King Ghidora. This was also one of the themes revived by McCreary for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, heard at the onset of “Godzilla Main Title.” It is conceivable that Holkenborg’s theme was intentionally designed as a nod to the Rampage theme. However, this would be in stark contrast with Holkenborg’s philosophy on reviving older material, so it is difficult to say for sure.
The Kong theme (“Skull Island”) has greater individuality to it, using a flute from the Pacific Islands and marimbas to reinforce the creature’s gentility. This choice seems to be informed by the notion that Kong, as a sapian character, is easier to humanize. Godzilla’s theme, conversely, is far more synthesized and brutish. Neither theme is particularly memorable, though both serve the film adequately enough.
The signature instrument used for Godzilla vs. Kong was a massive, custom-made drum, roughly 8 feet in diameter and used in conjunction with a 14-foot high bass amplifier. Sadly, whether due to the numerous deafening instruments involved or the mixing that took place during post-production, you would be hard pressed to identify even this enormous sound in the music against the rest of the synth-orchestra. A last objection I might note is the tangible absence of mixed meters which, though not universal, has been a longstanding trademark of kaiju scores.
These qualms notwithstanding, I found Godzilla vs. Kong to be a big improvement on past scores by Holkenborg. I appreciate that his more recent scores are no longer just wall-to-wall sound. There is nuance and stamina to their design. I appreciate that Holkenborg appears to be more melodically inclined these days. The music does not galavant through endless percussive patterns. I appreciate the pacing of the music in how it compliments the editing of the film. One of Holkenborg’s greatest strengths has always been a sense of rhythm. And I appreciate that, in the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, the composer maintained focus, musically speaking, when faced with a ridiculous number of subplots. Yes, Holkenborg has come a long way over a few short years.
Actually, I felt a standout moment pace-wise in Godzilla vs. Kong was “Hollow Earth,” where we were invited to explore a long lost world. The insular environment is introduced with futuristic, gliding electronics, offering a soothing departure from the score’s more bombastic musical junctures. And a further recurring technique I thoroughly enjoyed was the use of metered accelerando, heard ad nauseum in “Mega.”
All things considered, Holkenborg’s music for Godzilla vs. Kong is par for the course where contemporary action scores are concerned. It eschews continuity and lacks both a strong identity and genuine affectation toward its two primary subjects, yet it services the film well enough and has a couple of cool things to say in the process. Suffice it to say, my final bracket of MonsterVerse composers does not include Holkenborg.
Special thanks to Bennett Dobbins for his assistance identifying musical material used throughout the Godzilla franchise.