‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Is Big, Dumb, City-Destroying Fun
The mega-monster matchup, premiering March 31 in theaters and on HBO Max, is completely absurd but plenty thrilling.
With Godzilla vs. Kong, Warner Bros’ monster-verse goes whole hog into Saturday morning cartoon territory—and proves all the better for it.
Pitting the protagonists of Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters against one another, as well as marrying the finest aspects of those prior two franchise installments, Adam Wingard’s titan throwdown is a best-of-both-worlds affair: grand but also lighthearted, cognizant of its absurdity but not tongue-in-cheek, violent but also goofy. It’s akin to the sort of childish nonsense that kids might act out with action figures, brought to thunderous CGI-ified life by a host of digital artists who deliver exactly what the film’s title, and premise, promise.
The trick of Wingard’s tentpole (out March 31 in theaters and HBO Max) is concocting a decent excuse to have its central characters square off, and Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s script achieves this feat in its first few minutes. Kong is now a resident of a Skull Island encased in a protective bio-dome, but he’s not happy about it, and is only kept calm by Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who’s the adopted daughter of “Kong Whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), and a Skull Island native whom Kong saved from death and, um, loves. Kong has to remain securely hidden away because, if not, Godzilla will sense his presence and go after him, given that they’re ancient rivals and will fight to the death to establish their apex predator status.
When Godzilla goes on a surprise rampage at Apex Cybernetics in Hong Kong, things get urgent, compelling the company’s CEO Walter Simmons (a scenery-chewing Demián Bichir) to enlist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) for a dicey mission: to travel to the Hollow Earth, the planetary-core birthplace of all titans, in order to retrieve Godzilla’s energy source, which can then be used against the beast. To find their way, they need Kong as a guide—thus necessitating his removal from Skull Island, and initiating a series of battles between the two gargantuan creatures. Those take place at sea and on land, and cause the sort of catastrophic collateral damage that would make Man of Steel blush, although Wingard’s film spends no time considering the loss of human life that’s taking place, glossing over such concerns with a shot or two of a pilot ejecting from his jet right before its destruction, G.I. Joe-style.
Godzilla vs. Kong does care about a few humans, albeit perfunctorily, as the film wisely treats its live-action heroes as two-dimensional functionaries designed to keep the narrative moving forward. Skarsgård’s Lind is a nerd, but a buff one who at one point orders a high-tech spaceship to fire on the monsters. Hall’s Andrews is a sensitive scientist who proclaims “No one bows to Kong” and communicates sweetly via sign language with deaf Jia, who spends most of her screen time weepily looking up at captive Kong, feeling bad for his plight. Brian Tyree Henry plays a conspiracy theory-peddling podcaster who partners up with Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell and her friend Josh (Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison) to infiltrate Apex, leading to lots of semi-witty banter and the discovery of Simmons’ secret plan. Does any of this matter in the slightest? No. Is it handled so flippantly and jauntily that it doesn’t get in the way of the main event? Yes.
Wingard’s film boasts the sort of multicharacter structure that was pioneered by Independence Day and duplicated by Godzilla (1998), Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and its own franchise predecessors—save, that is, for Gareth Edwards’ superior 2014 Godzilla, which captured a ground-level-POV sense of mythic awe that’s since been replaced by extravagant rock ‘em sock ‘em mayhem (Edwards’ signature sight of figures, and missiles, plummeting thru space, trails of smoke behind them, remains). Fortunately, almost everyone is disposable to the point of being ignorable. Moreover, following the historically idiotic villainous scheme of King of the Monsters, Godzilla vs. Kong features an evil plot that—at least in the context of this fanciful reality—turns out to be rather reasonable. That it inevitably goes sidewise and results in even more ridiculous monster-vs.-monster chaos is simply an amusing plus.
At no point does Godzilla vs. Kong flirt with consequence; it’s as insubstantial as $200 million would-be blockbusters get. Moreover, it’s unevenly weighted toward Kong, who’s cast from the outset as the sweet gorilla hero who adores kids, yearns for a quiet and safe home, and is the veritable ruler of the titan universe by virtue of his ability to comprehend, and use, tools (and language!). Godzilla, on the other hand, serves as his primal second-banana adversary, lavished with less attention and positioned, until late, as the material’s nominal bad guy, which reverses the prior movie’s course (in which he was mankind’s defender, bringing natural balance to Earth). A couple of storytelling shortcuts are also employed—namely, Kong’s axe—to keep the playing field even so Kong has a puncher’s chance, which is a requirement of the proceedings’ conceit and yet comes off feeling a bit cheap.
Beginning with an intro graphic that features Godzilla and Kong as finalists in a March Madness-esque tournament bracket, the film goes out of its way to maintain superficiality. Kyle Chandler reprises his King of the Monsters part for about five minutes, seeming as hopelessly confused about his meaningless role as everyone else involved, all of whom largely stand around while Kong and Godzilla roar, punch, stomp, and batter each other amid aircraft carriers and metropolitan skyscrapers. Kong looks as buff and globular as a stuffed animal (Jia has even made a homemade one), and Godzilla continues to resemble a steroidal dino-lizard who’s spent too much time working on his traps. They’re suitably fearsome and deadly, and certainly boast more convincing appearances than the ludicrous bat-chicken whatsits that Lind and Andrews encounter in the center of the Earth.
From a sub-2001 lightshow to a moment in which Brown’s Russell outright states something the audience has learned three minutes earlier, Godzilla vs. Kong is hardly original or subtle. It does, however, have a few moments of pop-art beauty to rival King of the Monsters’s superlative CG tableaus (think: Kong wielding his axe mid-air to strike Godzilla), and is burdened by only a fraction of Skull Island’s cornball comedy. It’s no surprise that, for a series intended to keep on producing profits for Warner Bros, this long-awaited showdown ends in a virtual stalemate. Still, Wingard provides just enough diverting mega-combat to get his entry into the winner’s column.