Outside of Marvel Studios, Legendary have perhaps the most successful attempt to create a cinematic universe. Even if the so-called ‘MonsterVerse’ is primarily a Godzilla saga with a reimagining of King Kong thrown in, foreshadowing a moment when those two iconic monsters would fight for supremacy. So, after Gareth Edwards’ ponderous but intelligent Godzilla (2014), Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ fun retro adventure Kong: Skull Island (2017), and Michael Dougherty’s overburdened slog Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), comes the long-awaited Godzilla vs. Kong from director Adam Wingard (Blair Witch).
It’s not the first time these famous monsters have appeared together on film. Toho Pictures got the rights to King Kong from RKO in 1962, allowing Ishirō Honda to make Kingu Kongu tai Gojira / King Kong vs. Godzilla the same year. And it now just so happens that Warner Bros., who own Legendary Pictures, have the rights to new versions of those characters.
Godzilla vs. Kong is the sort of blockbuster that would’ve drawn crowds to cinemas, but it’s unfortunately being released during a pandemic, so almost everyone will see it on television first. Good home theatre setups are not uncommon these days, but shrinking Godzilla and King Kong down to a 65″ 4K widescreen still does the intended ‘big screen’ experience a disservice. Plus it makes you focus more on the human characters and plot, which is rarely a good thing for movies of this ilk. The screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein (the latter of whom’s been involved in every MonsterVerse offerings, although only has a story credit on King of the Monsters) has to overcome the usual hurdle with a monster film: how do you keep the human characters interesting, when everyone’s really here to see enormous creatures kick and punch each other?
The answer, this time, is to have dual adventures for ‘Team Kong’ and ‘Team Godzilla’. The former is comprised of anthropological linguist Dr Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who watch over Kong inside a Truman Show-like dome resembling Skull Island inside. Jia’s the only surviving native of Kong’s homeland, but also deaf, so she communicates with the great ape using sign language. Did nobody seriously consider this until now, knowing ordinary apes have been known to master sign language? Newcomer Kaylee Hottle has little to do but look adorable while holding a Kong effigy, as the Fay Wray-style human Kong’s besotted with, but her screen mother Rebecca Hall somehow has less relevance to the story and is stuck delivering exposition. And then there’s reluctant hero and sexy geologist Dr Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), who’s enlisted by tech industrialist Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) to find a powerful energy source deep inside the ‘Hollow Earth’ that may have once been Kong’s motherland.
Over on ‘Team Godzilla’, there’s the less entertaining mix of Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) from King of the Monsters and her tech-savvy friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), who try to find conspiracist podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) to help them prove a theory for why Godzilla’s going on a rampage after defeating King Ghidorah.
There’s certainly more wild ideas floating around compared to King of the Monsters, with a Jules Verne-flavoured ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ and the discovery of an interior ecosystem filled with dragon-like nasties straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series. And how about a giant hole through the Earth that leads directly to Hong Kong? Or a glowing axe that can draw Godzilla’s atomic energy? The characters may be two-dimensional mouthpieces to push the story along, as the script doesn’t sweat over giving them much interpersonal drama this time, but at least there’s plenty of beautiful things to gawp at when the kaiju aren’t in a fighting mood. And I daresay a lot of people will be glad there’s not even a hint of a Hall and Skarsgård romantic subplot, despite both apparently being single and of a similar age. It’s just a pity the human involvement during the climactic battle is negligible, amounting to the terrible cliche of helpfully spilling water over a computer terminal.
In terms of delivering on the promise of the title, Godzilla vs. Kong is a little miserly with the number of brawls. I’d have enjoyed at least one more epic confrontation, instead of just two. Each action sequence is certainly fun to with its thumping bass and neon visuals, but as we’re four movies into the MonsterVerse the excitement level’s dropped when it comes to seeing Godzilla shoot atomic breath at things. Kong’s a more exciting visual prospect, as he’s more personable and can use weapons in his fights, but we’re so accustomed to photorealistic kaiju I’m a little jaded. What once felt like childhood dreams coming true in Jurassic Park (1993) is now just the norm, barely worthy of special mention.
Running for over two-hours, there’s unfortunately plenty of time to note the weaknesses of Godzilla vs. Kong’s script, certainly in terms of its thin characterisations, dumb jokes, and stupid creative decisions. For instance, why cast Alexander Skarsgård as a new character who’s a Hollow Earth expert, when the MonsterVerse had established such a character in two of the previous movies (Corey Hawkins in Skull Island, then Joe Morton in King of the Monsters)? The only explanation is either ageism or racism, but it would’ve made more sense for Morton to take centre stage, and cast Skarsgård as a skilled pilot of the specialised subterranean craft.
The bonkers sci-fi ideas lifted from other sources, brought to life with $200M, is undeniably entertaining as a pure spectacle. And who am I to throw cold water on the childlike joy of seeing a 300-foot ape put a giant lizard into a headlock? But I’ve reached an age where I can’t help keeping count of how many thousands are being killed whenever Godzilla or Kong get kicked through a building or hurled across entire city blocks. I know it’s only a movie, and a Godzilla film without large-scale destruction isn’t possible, but as VFX gets more realistic it crosses your mind more often than when it was clearly just a man in a rubber suit knocking over cardboard towers.
Overall, you mostly get what’s expected from a a film with the title Godzilla vs. Kong. It delivers the spectacle and wisely keeps Kong around for much of the runtime, instead of solely relying on the human characters to carry the story between the monster mêlées. Where can the MonsterVerse go after its Avengers-style creative apex? My money’s on Destoroyah.
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USA • AUSTRALIA | 2021 | 113 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Adam Wingard.
writers: Eric Pearson & Max Borenstein (story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields; based on ‘Godzilla’ created by Toho, and ‘King Kong’ created by Edgar Wallace & Merian C. Cooper).
starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Kyle Chandler & Demián Bichir).