It’s dumb as a box of rocks, but Adam Wingard’s addition to the MonsterVerse hits all the spectacle sweet spots.
One of the most fascinating things about Godzilla — whether in his original Japanese provenance in his long-running series of films, or in the comparatively-recent “MonsterVerse” Westernization of the big lizard, courtesy of Warner Bros. and Legendary — is that he’s so malleable. On the one hand (as with the original 1954 Ishiro Honda film and Gareth Edwards’ flawed but philosophically-intriguing 2014 reboot), he can be a poignant vehicle to explore the apocalyptic anxieties of nations ravaged by atomic bombs and climate change.
On the other, he punches other rubber-faced monsters real good.
Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth (and potentially final?) film in the series, is steeped deliriously in the latter approach, dumbing itself down to the level of a Saturday morning cartoon punch-em-up. In that way, it’s not unlike its immediate predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which also went big and dumb but forgot to make the monster fights comprehensible. Here, the unabashed schlockiness remains intact, but director Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next) knows he’s just smashing action figures together, so he might as well make it look as cool as possible.
“Godzilla’s out there and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why,” earnestly intones Monarch scientist (and King of the Monsters holdover) Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler, basically just cameoing here) early in Godzilla vs. Kong. He’s got good reason to worry, too; the presumed protector of mankind is swimming around the globe destroying cities again, mostly centered around the facilities of definitely-not-evil-tech-company Apex Cybernetics, led by Titan-obsessed billionaire Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir).
But Simmons has bigger plans for understanding the giant kaiju that stalk the Earth: He taps disgraced Monarch scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to explore his theory of the “Hollow Earth”, a much-theorized secret world at the center of the planet where the Titans are thought to come from. To guide them down there, the team recruits Kong from Skull Island, with Jane Goodall-like “Kong Whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf native of Skull Island who seems the only person who can control the great ape. But the expedition quickly runs afoul of Godzilla, who’s none too happy to see another “Alpha Titan” vying for mastery of the planet.
The basics of the plot, such as it is, are immaterial: chances are your eyes glazed over half that plot description, a story as ludicrous as it is unnecessary. Like much of the ’60s and ’70s Toho output, Godzilla vs. Kong is interested in one thing only: finding the barest threads to connect the wrestling-like spectacle of watching giant monsters lay each other out. The humans are there out of obligation, really; we need someone to exposit to us and to stand (or fly, in some cases) next to the beasties to give us a sense of scale. The actors are game, but also definitely know how silly their dialogue is: whenever Hall’s on screen, you can feel her thinking to herself, “Just cash the paycheck so you can make Passing.”
When Wingard puts down the window dressing and gets to the main event, it’s a riotous blast.
But realizing the superfluousness of the human half of the story doesn’t make it any easier to sit through. Take, for instance, the B-plot concerning King of the Monsters kiddo Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her amateur investigations of Apex’s experiments, with the help of bumbling friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and paranoid conspiracy podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), which feels Scooby-Doo in the most superfluous way. It’s also a weird look to see Henry’s character validate the kinds of crackpot theories – showering with bleach, fluoride as mind control – that a not-insignificant portion of the American populace, and one former president, buy into completely.
Honestly, if not for the plot purpose of setting up some third-act reveals, we don’t need them here at all; their adventures are completely divorced from the Kong team we follow for the rest of it. I’d have happily ditched their subplot for more time in the Hollow Earth, for instance, or to just focus on Kong as a character (ekeing more humanity out of two big CG eyes and a butt-scratch than most of the real humans on screen). Hell, why not give us a glimpse into what Godzilla’s going through? I’m sure he’s got some scaly anxieties to work through before the big bout!
But make no mistake, when Wingard puts down the window dressing and gets to the main event, it’s a riotous blast. The film is studded with cacophonous, bone-shattering fights, tightly choreographed and blessedly visible in a way only Kong Skull Island has really managed to approximate. One early dustup around Kong’s fleet of ships (Kong-voy?) is a particular highlight, the two Titans wrestling on, around, and below the helpless military ships that surround them. Ben Seresin’s cinematography leans mightily into the concept-art of it all, especially the dizzying jungle environs of the Hollow Earth, which looks like if that iconic ‘city-folding-in-on-itself’ shot from Inception was applied to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Tom Holkenborg brings all the booming drums and wall-of-sound cacophony we typically expect to his score, though I’ll admit I miss Bear McCreary’s reprisal of the old Toho themes from King of the Monsters.
While his name is first on the fight card, Godzilla is frustratingly absent from much of the film, Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s script choosing to focus firmly on Kong as the protagonist. This leaves Thicc Lizzie as the intermittent threat/opponent/eventual ally against forces we daren’t spoil here (but are guessable to anyone who can read between the lines or have a passing familiarity with Godzilla lore), which is a shame given how much time we’ve spent with this version of the boy so far.
The dynamic works, though; Kong’s physicality is a blast, playing up his childlike, protective nature with a glint of pathos at being the last of his kind. More than a few fight moments reminded me of the punch-drunk relatability of John McClane — including one slow-motion jump so gleefully cribbed from Die Hard I can’t even be mad about it. It’s these moments that feel the most like Wingard, who came up as an indie horror director, gets to put glimmers of his earlier career’s personality in, though they are few and far between.
Make no mistake, Godzilla vs. Kong is dumb as rocks and sillier than a clown factory. Kong vibes out to yacht rock not once, but twice. Someone uses an exploding spaceship as a defibrillator. There’s even a return of the old chestnut, ‘Guess the Password to the Enemy Computer’. Skyscrapers collapse and military ships crumble with reckless, if bloodless, abandon, which is meant to make us feel a bit better about it all. But if there’s a picture for those who wish something like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla or Godzilla vs. Megalon had a slick CG budget to work with, this might well be it. Just rest your eyes when the puny humans start to talk.
Godzilla vs. Kong skreeonks its way to theaters and HBO Max simultaneously on March 31st.