Directed By: Adam Wingard
Release Date: March 31, 2021
Starring: King Kong, Godzilla, Millie Bobby Brown, Alexander Skarsgard
Five years have passed since the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the rise of the Titans, and in that time, the world has changed quite a bit. The corporation Apex Cybernetics, guided by CEO Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), has confirmed the existence of Hollow Earth, a vast ecosystem deep within the planet's core that was once the Titans' original home. After Godzilla unexpectedly decimates an Apex facility in Florida, breaking an extended period of relative peace in which he has remained unseen and left the world alone, Simmons approaches Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) to lead an expedition to Hollow Earth in the hopes of discovering a power source that can help save humanity.
To do so, however, they will need a Titan to lead them there, and so Lind turns to Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a member of Monarch stationed on Skull Island, for help. Due to the storm that once surrounded the island having overtaken the landmass completely, Kong has been protected within a special dome constructed by Monarch, the colossal ape building a connection to Andrews' adoptive daughter and last remaining Skull Island resident Jia (Kaylee Hottle) while off the radar from Godzilla, whose natural instinct to battle another Alpha would inevitably lead him to seek out and fight Kong, the only other Alpha Titan in existence. Though reluctant, Andrews allows Kong to be used to find Hollow Earth, starting a countdown to an inevitable clash between the two Titans, though there may be something more sinister going on than she, Lind, or anyone else could imagine.
Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth film in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, following 2014's Godzilla, 2017's Kong: Skull Island, and 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the big event that fans have been waiting for since it was announced back in 2015. This isn't the first time these two icons have shared the screen – 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla did it first – but director Adam Wingard's new monster mash certainly carries with it a whole heap of expectations than those of those from audiences sixty years ago now that both characters have decades of history under their belts and legions of fans across the world eager to see these characters clash in an era of staggering special effects.
To that end, from a purely visual standpoint, Godzilla vs. Kong does not disappoint. If all you're looking forward to is the idea of seeing the two titular Titans tango, the scenes in which they do are exhilarating and rewarding, and a show-stopping nighttime battle in the neon-lit city of Hong Kong alone is worth the price of admission. And for anyone worried, this isn't a slap fight where the end result is just a stalemate. When all is said and done, there is a pretty clear victor between the two, though fans of the "loser" likely still won't fret, as the film takes strides to do that character justice and ultimately close on a note where both icons get the respect they deserve as fighters.
However, though the fights and action live up to what both characters are capable of, fans of Godzilla might have to temper their expectations over his overall role in the film. Despite his name being one half of the title, Godzilla isn't really a big presence within the film itself beyond the action; rather than feeling like a true sequel to King of the Monsters and Skull Island, Godzilla vs. Kong feels more like an exclusive follow-up to the latter. Kong gets the bulk of attention in this film, with moments that open his characterization up in surprising, wonderful ways, like his interactions with Jia, and a narrative through line about returning "home" (to Hollow Earth), while Godzilla really only ever shows up to ring the bell of battle.
I mentioned in my recent reviews of 1933's King Kong and 1954's Godzilla that both characters are iconic for several reasons, chief among them being that the former has a certain level of humanity to him, of a heart we sympathize with and associate to nearly every iteration of the character over the last century, while the latter is more a force of nature and karma, a metaphorical stand-in for a large issue, whether it be nuclear power or climate change. Godzilla vs. Kong, I believe, really draws upon that basic idea in its application of the two icons, with Godzilla being a reactionary force of nature, particularly in terms of his innate instinct to battle Kong and other powers for supremacy, and Kong being the heart of the film, the real underdog we root for not just due to his clear disadvantages against Godzilla and his incredible abilities but because Kong has always been the most sympathetic of the two by design.
Unfortunately, however, none of the human characters – barring, I would argue, Jia, who benefits from having a direct friendship with Kong – really leave a mark in scenes where the Titans aren’t directly involved. The majority of the film's supporting cast can cleanly be divided into two camps: On Team Godzilla, a term I use loosely, there's Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), Josh (Julian Dennison), and Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry). On Team Kong, there's Jia, Dr. Andrews, and Lind. Neither group interacts on screen, and the former group has an entire subplot devoted to the discovery of what's going on behind the scenes that borders on the extraneous. Where Team Kong at least plays a direct part in Kong's story throughout the film, Team Godzilla is so disconnected from Godzilla himself that it feels as though the characters were thrown into the film just because those involved thought that they needed non-Kong-related supporting players; barring one pivotal moment in the final act of the film that could've easily been reconfigured in some other way to compensate, they could be cut almost entirely from the film and little would change other than an improvement in pacing.
Even in terms of characters outside the two "teams," the rest of the stacked cast feels utterly wasted. Bichir's Walter Simmons and Eiza Gonzalez's Maia Simmons (Walter's daughter) are central to part of the film's mysteries, yet are so devoid of personality that blatantly obvious revelations about their characters land with little impact. Kyle Chandler returns from King of the Monsters but does nothing of value here, while Lance Reddick – whose name pops up in the opening credits and got me excited – is little more than a cameo. (And as an aside, even the announced casting of Jessica Henwick, who I loved as Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, ended up amounting to nothing, as she was cut entirely from the film.)
Strangely, too, despite the previous film setting Charles Dance's Jonah up as a major threat, he's nowhere to be found in this film, which is unfortunate, as the film could've benefitted from having a pre-established human antagonist (something Dance could've easily owned here). Instead we're left with a roster of rather bland characters filled up by an otherwise great cast, and any time one of the Titans isn't on screen tends to bring the film to a bit of a crawl simply due to the fact no one other than Jia is really that engaging beyond, perhaps, a one-liner here and there at best.
While the human cast leaves something to be desired, at least the film's culmination of some of the MonsterVerse mythology to date is pretty slick. The Hollow Earth concept, for instance, which has run through this series since the theory was introduced in Skull Island, leads to some pretty solid visual effects work once the film journeys into it, the film crossing from a world of monster mayhem over into a realm of Jules Verne-esque exploration, tying up this arc of the MonsterVerse while teeing up a whole new set of conceptual possibilities in its next. Throw in elements from the prior films, too, like the reappearance of Skull Island's Skullcrawlers or the presence of one of Ghidorah’s severed heads, and this big event helps make the whole universe feel even more unified than ever before.
On the other hand, however, the film's decision to ignore certain other established elements from its predecessors is curious. Though Jonah is an obvious example of one such glaring exclusion, characters like Zhang Ziyi's twin sisters do not return despite being part of Monarch, while the character of Houston Brooks, portrayed in Skull Island by Corey Hawkins and by Joe Morton in King of the Monsters, is nowhere to be found, which is strange considering the fact that his character played a large part in bringing the Hollow Earth concept into these films in the first place. And though Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa notably gave his life in the last film, his son Ren (Shun Oguri) shows up here, which could’ve been an opportunity for the film to dive into the late doctor’s legacy. While I won't spoil Ren’s ultimate role in the film, the relation to his father is instead oddly treated as an afterthought despite his father's sacrifice being a pivotal reason why Godzilla is even still around; if you happen to miss when another character says his name, you'd easily be forgiven for completely failing to make the familial connection, and that's not helped when Ren's part to play is inexplicably incongruent with his father's ideology (and legacy) yet remains thoroughly unexplored as to why by the film.
All that said, I can't really fault Godzilla vs. Kong for most of those minor decisions. Though the human factor of the film is weak, a complaint I had about the last film as well, and it doesn't bring everything together perfectly, the movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong, a title that carries with it a certain promise, one that it more than fulfills. When either of the Titans is on screen, the film tends to fire on all cylinders, a colorful, energetic spectacle that’s a massive improvement from the overall dark and dreary visual style of King of the Monsters. The only real major fault when it comes to the conflict is that the final act breezes by so fast – including a game-changing introduction at the core of the film's big mystery – that it makes the film's early human scenes, chiefly Team Godzilla's subplot, feel all the more like wasted time that could've been sacrificed for more Titan screentime.
In the end, one's interest in the film will ultimately boil down exclusively to whether or not you're into kaiju movies and these icons in particular. There's no pretense here about what Godzilla vs. Kong aspires to be, an entertaining monster mash, and to expect more almost feels pointless when its intentions are so pure. Adam Wingard – whose 2014 film The Guest, you may remember, made me a fan – has created something that's far from a work of high art, nor pretends to be, but is one hell of an entertaining ride when it gets down to delivering on its marquee promise. All it had to do was coherently bring this universe further together, to give fans of Godzilla and Kong the chance to see their icons do what they do best, and though it has a tendency to shortchange the former, it follows through on its goals with entertaining efficiency if you’re willing to overlook its human faults and let yourself get swept up in it.
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