Part of me wonders what I’m even doing here.
I mean, this is Godzilla vs. Kong. You know exactly what you’re getting, it’s right there in the title. Either you’re on board with giant CGI monsters beating the shit out of each other or you’re not.
But on the other hand, it bears remembering that if we’re only ever happy with the same old mindless CGI destruction, there’s no incentive to demand better and no reason for the studios to give us better. Plus, it’s easy to lose sight of the human characters and their storylines — like it or not, they’ve been the underappreciated beating heart of kaiju films since their inception.
So let’s take a closer look at what we’ve got, shall we?
For those just tuning in, the monolithic Monarch corporation has more or less established itself as the global peacekeeping force self-appointed to the tasks of monitoring the kaiju (I still refuse to call them Titans, no matter what the characters say), keeping them in check, and managing the collateral damage. While Monarch is still very active in the background of this picture, the premise mostly concerns Apex Cybernetics, a new global conglomerate dedicated to the advancement of the human race into something bigger and better.
Team Apex is mostly comprised of company founder Walter Simmons and his daughter, Maya (respectively played by Demian Bichir and Eiza Gonzalez). Of course Bichir is more than comfortable playing a charismatic bastard — the guy is so deep into his wheelhouse, it’s almost like he’s sleepwalking. Likewise, Gonzalez is more than willing and able to play a duplicitous cold-hearted corporate snake. Oh, and there’s also Ren Serizawa (Shun Ogri), the head of tech R&D at Apex. One assumes that he’s supposed to be related to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, who heroically sacrificed himself in the previous movie, but this is never even obliquely mentioned. Also, Serizawa Sr. was probably the biggest kaiju fanatic on the planet — what his son (or nephew or whatever) would be doing in such a high-ranking job for a company that vocally hates kaiju is anyone’s guess.
Moving on to Team Godzilla, our reigning champion gets the plot moving when he makes landfall and destroys a coastal town for no apparent reason. While all of humanity is understandably pissed, it’s worth noting that this is the first time Godzilla has ever attacked without provocation, and his efforts were pretty much entirely focused on the Apex USA headquarters in that city. Thus Madison Russell (a returning Millie Bobby Brown) takes it upon herself to find out what’s really going on and what Godzilla could possibly have against Apex.
Maddie enlists the help of Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) an investigative journalist/conspiracy theorist nut who’s been working undercover at Apex for quite some time, digging up whatever corporate secrets he can load onto his podcast. Also on board is Josh (Julian Dennison), a delinquent classmate of Maddie’s. Kyle Chandler shows up, reprising the role of Maddie’s father, but hell if I know why he bothered. Maddie’s mom does more to move this plot forward, and she’s dead!
Yes, Bobby Brown is another actor playing well within her comfort zone and she does perfectly well as a plucky young lead who will get her way through sheer willpower. Also, Dennison and Tyree Henry are both proven comedic talents more than capable of delivering effective comic relief, and given how easy it is to deliver bad comic relief, that counts for a lot. Even so… well, we’ll come back to that point after we’ve talked about Team Kong.
It seems that for the past few years (possibly decades, the point is unclear), Monarch has been maintaining an outpost on Skull Island to contain and study Kong within an artificial habitat. This has the added bonus of keeping Kong off Godzilla’s radar, so the two of them don’t try to kill each other. And based on research suggesting an eons-long grudge between their two respective species, it’s a near-certainty that the two of them would try to kill each other.
So, Godzilla has apparently turned on the humans and we need Kong to defend us. Just point the giant ape at the giant lizard and we’ve got a movie, right? Christ, if only it was that simple.
See, Apex has been doing some research into the “Hollow Earth” theory briefly alluded to in the previous films. Long story short, it’s theorized that the planet has a giant hollow core that’s connected to the planet’s surface via networking tunnels. It’s the best explanation anyone has regarding where all these giant kaiju come from, how they can apparently disappear for such long stretches at a time, and how they can move around the planet so quickly.
Well, Apex recently used their satellite network to discover proof that the Hollow Earth exists, and they’ve developed vehicles specially designed to get there. What’s more, it’s theorized that the Hollow Earth has some kind of massively powerful energy needed to build a weapon that can…
Okay, look, I know it’s an open secret as to what this “secret weapon” is. If you know how notoriously leaky toy companies can be, you’ve known about this for months. God knows I was stoked to learn about the “secret weapon” — I’ve been vocally clamoring to see it ever since this whole “MonsterVerse” superfranchise started, and its execution in the climax was more or less as amazing as I had expected. Even so, it’s still technically a spoiler and this whole stupid plot is complicated enough as it is.
Bottom line: Apex wants to get to the Hollow World to strip mine it for their energy needs, and they need Kong to guide us there.
On Team Kong, we have Jia (Kaylee Hottle), apparently the last surviving Skull Island native. She’s a young deaf girl who communicates with Kong via sign language, so Kong seems to like and trust her more than any other human we know of. Sure, it’s a bit of a contrivance, but the “precocious child who shares an innate emotional bond with the monster” has been a well-worn genre trope for decades. (The entire Gamera franchise was built on it!) Plus, making this particular child the last surviving Skull Island native makes for a striking parallel with Kong, himself the last known one of his species. It’s hackneyed, but it works.
I might add that Hottle is a bright young talent, and I’m all in favor of another actor to represent the deaf community in our mainstream blockbuster cinema. Wonderful though Millicent Simmonds may be, she can’t carry that banner on her own and she certainly can’t do it forever.
We’ve also got Ilene Andrews on board (played by Rebecca Hall), a Monarch employee who’s basically the world’s foremost Kong expert and Jia’s adoptive mother. Of course Rebecca Hall is a solid talent, and it was wonderful to see her bring such heart to a movie in a franchise with a horrible track record regarding mother figures. Elsewhere, we’ve got Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), the world’s foremost authority on Hollow Earth theory, whose brother died in an earlier attempt at reaching Hollow Earth. Much like Tom Hiddleston, Kyle Chandler, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson before him, Skarsgard is tasked with being a bland and unmemorable male lead just barely charismatic enough to get us from one scene to the next. With the uncanny ability to do whatever the scene demands, I might add.
On a final note regarding the cast, I was delighted to see Lance Reddick and Hakeem Kae-Kazim in the cast… only to see their talents utterly wasted in glorified background roles that could’ve been played just as well by literally anyone. Damn shame.
To recap: Team Kong is loaded with capable dramatic talents while Team Godzilla is loaded with comic relief. Team Kong gets to travel to the Hollow World and interact with Kong and do all this stuff that directly moves the plot forward, while Team Godzilla stumbles around Apex HQ so we can get all this exposition about our overarching antagonist. No doubt about it, this movie definitely has a balance problem.
Even so, the fights between Kong and Godzilla themselves are surprisingly well balanced, with the both of them playing beautifully to their respective strengths. Godzilla is of course an amphibious threat who holds a distinct advantage in the water, but Kong can leap around through the air like Godzilla certainly can’t. Godzilla is a creature of overwhelming muscle and unbridled power, but Kong is demonstrably smarter and better at thinking on his feet.
Granted, Kong is given a bit of an unfair advantage in that he has the humans and their military to help him out where necessary. The filmmakers also came up with a special axe built by Kong’s ancestors that was specifically built to fight Godzilla and his ilk. Even so, at least Kong is capable of inventing and using tools, which is a strategic advantage Godzilla doesn’t have. And even with all these handicaps, Godzilla is still powerful enough to fight Kong to a draw or an outright loss on more than one occasion.
Perhaps more importantly, the whole movie is loaded with extreme close-up shots of our monsters. Of course this does Kong a lot of favors — ever since the character’s inception, the giant ape’s unique ability to emote in a way that captures the audience’s sympathy has set him above and apart from most other giant cinematic monsters. But even with Godzilla, the filmmakers are surprisingly adept at twisting those craggy mountainous scales into something resembling emotion and getting us into the big lizard’s head. These extreme close-ups go a long way toward establishing Kong and Godzilla as developed characters who are fighting each other for their own long-running grudges, and not just CGI cartoon characters bashing each other for our amusement.
The unfortunate drawback to this approach is that we often have massive sprawling fight scenes shot through a tightly-focused lens. In particular, that first grudge match on the aircraft carriers is loaded with ill-conceived shots that might have sounded cool in theory, except that they actively work against the film by obscuring the action. Even during that second big fight in Hong Kong, there were a couple of times when I worried that the filmmakers simply weren’t capable of handling so much destruction on such a tremendous scale. But then we have that huge climactic fight set in Hong Kong after it’s already been pretty much leveled. Here we get a glorious grudge match and a symphony of destruction worthy of the title.
But as big as the fight scenes and the title characters are, the plot holes might be even bigger.
Likely in an effort to cut costs, this movie clocks in at 113 minutes. As a reminder, this is a movie all about a clash between the two most iconic giant monsters in cinema history. It’s also a movie tasked with establishing something as bonkers as the Hollow Earth, a pivotal concept that’s only been vaguely alluded to previously, a foundational concept for the entire superfranchise and probably any future sequels. All of this action, all of this spectacle, all of this world-building and exposition… and the filmmakers had to cram it all into less than two hours.
Seriously, did WB learn nothing from the theatrical cut of Justice League?!
Because so much has to get done in so little time, a lot of motivations get simplified and a lot of paper-thin contrivances are put in place to get everything where it needs to be. My personal favorite example concerns the Hollow Earth energy that Apex is after. The filmmakers needed some way for Apex to get that energy where it needed to go instantly. Their solution: Bring in a droid to study the energy and send the data wirelessly, using a signal that went completely unimpeded through several hundred thousand miles of earth and magma. And upon receiving the data, Apex was somehow capable of reverse-engineering this unknown and apparently limitless source of energy within seconds. What in the name of God, the Devil, and Walt Disney’s ghost did I just fucking watch?
Speaking of which, it’s anyone’s guess why Apex needs Kong to find the Hollow Earth when they’ve apparently been using these subterranean tunnels for their own high-speed network. No joke, for the purpose of getting Team Godzilla from Florida to Hong Kong within minutes, Apex built a high-speed tram that would’ve taken several decades and untold trillions of dollars to build. Even in a universe where so many kaiju like Godzilla and Kong are allowed to roam free, even in a universe where Monarch’s city-sized stealth plane is possible, Apex tech is so ridiculously improbable that it would’ve been laughed out of goddamn Wakanda!
Oh, and how could I forget Team Godzilla’s big contribution to the climactic fight, their crushing blow against the “secret weapon”. Spoilers prevent me from elaborating further, but you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you. It’s that pathetically stupid.
Look, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers on the promise of the title. If you want to see these two classic monsters in an all-out brawl with world-shaking collateral damage, you’re going to get it. If you want a filmmaker who doesn’t just move around Godzilla and Kong like overgrown action figures, but respects them as characters in their own right, Adam Wingard is your guy. If you like the Legendary Monsterverse’s established themes of humans struggling to coexist with huge sentient forces of nature that barely even seem to recognize our existence, much less all the great things we’ve done and built, you’ll be very happy with where this goes.
But goddammit, this movie needed more than two hours. There are too many characters who get short shrift, the plot had too many corners that had to be cut, and there’s too much world-building that falls flat because too many whys and wherefores go unexamined. In fact, there’s a very real possibility that Apex might have broken this entire superfranchise after they figured out how to make technology powered by plot convenience.
Though I will say that after a solid year in quarantine (and after getting fully vaccinated), it was a true delight to sit in an actual theater and watch a bona fide blockbuster disaster spectacle. If you’re able to do the same, and do it safely, this is a fine one to watch for your return to the big screen. And when the Universal theme parks inevitably make their “Journey to Hollow Earth” motion simulator ride, I’m sure that will be great fun as well.