Spoiler alert: Godzilla vs. Kong is bad. I don’t know who this will surprise, maybe no one. Anyone’s expectations for a showdown film between two of the movies’ most recognizable monsters (or kaiju – or “titans”, which is the word du jour of this film) aren’t going to be of high-level cinema. They only want the one thing: the thing that this promised in the title. A fight between nuclear super-lizard Godzilla and the skyscraper-sized ape King Kong. The inherent problem with these films is that you can only watch these two creatures fight for so long. There has to be some kind of shell of a story surrounding this altercation, and this is where things go wrong. In a script that is obviously focus-grouped to death, Godzilla vs. Kong spends close to two hours trying to convince us of the logical reasons why this fight would ever happen.
Okay, here’s another, less snarky spoiler alert. The larger, more existential, problem is that in our culture of valued IP, there is no possible way that Godzilla or King Kong can win this fight. Consciously or not, we all know that this film will not end with one “titan” victorious over the other, but with the two coming together for some kind of super-freak communion. It’s just a matter of how. This complete neutering of suspense – and really, just an invalidation of the entire premise of the film – does Godzilla vs. King Kong no favors. I spent a lot of the film wondering which of the human characters (a power-crazy CEO! a novelist turned hollow-earth theorist! a podcaster!) would end up being the real villain.
And there are many to choose from, because another issue this movie has is a penchant for an ensemble in which every character is given a parchment paper backstory, allowing the film to reach feature length through the sheer abundance of exposition. Millie Bobby Brown returns from 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (which I have not seen) to play Madison Russell, the daughter of a deputy director (Kyle Chandler), and a rabid listener to a conspiracy theory podcast by Bernie Hayes (Bryan Tyree Henry, extremely overqualified for his comic relief role). Madison’s father works for APEX, a company run by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir). The APEX headquarters in Pensacola, FL (???) has just been ravaged by Godzilla. While Simmons believes this is proof that Godzilla has turned again humans, Madison and Bernie believe something more sinister is afoot.
On the Kong side, he is living inside a giant bio-dome on Skull Island, monitored by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who’s known as the “Kong whisperer”. Ilene’s adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) – a deaf, orphaned native of Skull Island – sparks a particularly close relationship with Kong. She can even communicate with him. Ilene is approached by Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a geologist and quack science theorist who believes in the Hollow Earth Theory. Simmons has given Nathan the money and equipment needed to reprise a formerly unsuccessful trip to the center of the Earth (where he lost a brother), but Nathan needs Kong to help them get there. Everyone hopes that the center of the Earth holds the energy possible to defeat the now-villainous Godzilla.
If this all seems confusing – like I’m missing a plot point or two – I apologize, though I don’t really think it’s my fault. This film doesn’t reprise the errors of the 2014 Godzilla which was an over-serious, over-directed slog, but it falls short of the B movie schlock of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, which has been the best (extremely sliding scale) of the major studio monster movies over the last decade. When we get what we want – Godzilla vs. Kong – this new film actually delivers. The first fight is in the middle of the ocean, along battle carriers, and the second (the “big finale”), is set in the bright lights of downtown Hong Kong. The city is laid waste, and I wouldn’t expect it any other way. The eventual communion does come between the two titans, which will allow us to watch battles (or partnerships? tag teams?) between the two in future movies.
I don’t want to give off the impression that I was in any way disappointed by Godzilla vs. Kong. There’s certainly great precedent for studios force-feeding B movie content under the guise of opulent majesty. Director Andrew Wingard plays it safe, making sure all the appropriate notes are hit, and thankfully we also get the notes that these two creatures are actually supposed to fight each other. There are times it seemed like the filmmakers involved wanted a giant ape fighting a mutated lizard to be the least ridiculous thing in the movie. They came close to achieving that. In a better film, we would know who the real stars are.
Directed by Adam Wingard