2.5 out of 5 stars

Three years after their cataclysmic encounter, King Kong dwells inside Hollow Earth, while Godzilla reigns supreme over the Earth. The two iconic kaiju are peacefully separated, with no reason to intrude upon each other’s territory. However, when a primeval force threatens to rise to the surface and bring an apocalypse to mankind, it will take the combined might of the two monsters to stop it.

Adam Wingard’s latest outing fails to become truly exhilarating due to a surfeit of characters with insufficient screen time allocated to each. A general unwillingness to poke fun at itself ensures the film is never as funny or enjoyable as it ought to be. Perhaps I’m treating the subject matter too seriously, but I’d argue the director has already done that: Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire spends far too long trying to establish plot elements that simply don’t matter, giving the audience less spectacle and humour than they bargained for.

Firstly, let’s start with the positives. I’d be interested to hear what some animators have to say about the character design. I have no experience in animation myself, but I often found the VFX to be impressive; at the very least, it wasn’t distracting. There’s a lot of anthropomorphic behaviour on screen, particularly from the apes in Hollow Earth, and the result is rather convincing, if somewhat amusing. King Kong showers, gets mugged in a dark alleyway, and even goes to the dentist. It’s like the uncanny valley, but with CGI apes.

Secondly, the performances were surprisingly good. I’m still reeling from the wooden acting in Kong: Skull Island (2017), where Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson delivered unusually artificial performances. In stark contrast, Rebecca Hall (Resurrection) is excellent, as ever, and injects more humanity into this film than the screenplay should allow for. She wrings sentiment out of even the most minor scenes, providing the only semblance of emotion in the entire film.

Dan Stevens (The Guest) is perfectly acceptable as the trendy, groovy veterinarian. He also possesses a surprising aptitude for biomechanics, piloting, and whatever else the plot throws his way. Additionally, he serves as a potential love interest for Hall’s Dr Ilene Andrews character. Perhaps this romance will blossom in a later instalment—there simply wasn’t time for it to develop in any meaningful way here, as that would have detracted from the focus on the monsters duking it out.

Unfortunately, Brian Tyree Henry’s performance as Bernie Hayes is even more irritating than his turn in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). He is incessantly loud, which somehow stands out in an uncommonly loud movie, throwing out one-liners which are desperately trying to be funny. I would love to think that it simply wasn’t my kind of humour, but the entire theatre was silent as the punchline is theatrically delivered; the editor has left space for the audience to guffaw, but in my viewing experience, that space remained empty. 

Henry shouldn’t be rebuked too harshly, however. He’s a remarkable actor, with his stunning performance in Causeway (2022) opposite Jennifer Lawrence even earning him a nomination for an Academy Award. But he’s been hampered by unfunny material and excessive exposition, most of which is entirely superfluous to the narrative. At times, characters even ask him to skip to the end of his explanations so they (and we) can be spared the seemingly endless description of how Hollow Earth works; like us, the characters don’t care about the details and just want to know how it will affect the plot.

The writers and director want to have their cake and eat it too. Or, in this case, they want a layered setting with elaborate world-building and giant animals punching each other in the face. The majority of the film’s audience will be looking for the latter, rather than the former. All the explanations regarding how Hollow Earth functions, the history of the domain, and the lore that’s been established as a result, begin to weigh heavily on the viewer. It’s mostly irrelevant to the plot’s functioning, so why they felt the need to explain everything is beyond me.

A lot of this exposition is also devoted to introducing new Titans, who will naturally be the antagonists in this instalment. From the description, it’s clear there’s already so much going on that anything else feels like utter nimiety. Of course, we expect excess in these blockbuster spectacles, but not like this. There are simply too many moving parts at once, and the characters consequently lose screen time.

Whilst Godzilla remains the arbiter of monster justice on Earth, we see far less of him compared to King Kong. Director Adam Wingard has positioned Kong as the true protagonist of the ever-growing Monsterverse, believing him to be a more relatable character. I’d be inclined to agree—I’ve never felt a strong emotional connection to the atomic lizard. However, it still feels strange to have the kaiju whom the franchise was built around doing practically nothing for the entire film. Godzilla spends most of the runtime consuming other nameless monsters and inadvertently destroying half of Europe.

The storyline probably could have done without the colossal lizard and the plot would have benefited from his omission; if he’s only going to spend 90% of his time on screen trying to supercharge, it feels a bit pointless his being there. Wingard claimed he wouldn’t tell parallel storylines as he did in the previous film, but he goes right ahead and does precisely that: the two eponymous titans are separated for the majority of the film, only to be united at around the 90-minute mark. The film easily could have focused entirely on King Kong, but it also would have sold fewer tickets.

However, in my opinion, the standalone films have proved to be better. King Kong (2005) and Godzilla (2014) are my favourite recent entries in the monster movie genre, specifically because they feature both human stories and giant beasts engaging in VFX slugfests. The perspective of an ordinary person serves to ground the utter destruction of famous landmarks, providing a sense of scale. I mean, what more could you ask for from a monster film at that point?

In comparison, Godzilla x Kong is somehow lacking in both character development and spectacle. The lengthy exposition leaves little room for a compelling human narrative, while the awe-inspiring clashes between the kaiju feel curiously inconsequential. They rampage through Rome and Rio de Janeiro—apparently kaiju loathe human landmarks—but any sense of scale is lost. The effect is akin to the showdown in Hot Fuzz (2007), where two men fight to the death in a miniature village.

But while Hot Fuzz playfully lampooned itself, Wingard’s new film appears unsure how to tread the line between self-mockery and sincerity. It’s an odd mix of being overly serious and unabashedly unpretentious. The final product is a polished spectacle, but extraneous exposition clogs up the works.

Whenever you watch a kaiju movie (or a musical, for that matter), you need to reset your expectations for judging the film. Ultimately, the question is: was it entertaining? You don’t necessarily need character development, themes, or symbolism for it to be a success—it helps, of course, but that’s not what you’re paying for. What you want is a constant stream of funny lines, some wacky characters, outrageous fight sequences, and a playful tone that lets the audience know it’s in on the joke.

Instead, Wingard appears doggedly determined to power through the plot, introduce new Titans and their accompanying lore, and explain the science of recently discovered civilisations. It’s never complex, it’s simply just too much all at once. The result is a largely predictable film, devoid of laughs. However, you will get to see a giant iguana dump tackle a giant ape right through the Pyramids of Giza. Whether or not that’s worth the price of admission is up to you.

USA | 2024 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR| ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Adam Wingard.
writers: Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett & Jeremy Slater (story by Terry Rossio, Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett; based on ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Mothra’ by Toho Co. Ltd.)
starring: Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Dan Stevens, Kaylee Hottle, Alex Ferns, Fala Chen, Rachel House, Ron Smyck & Chantelle Jamieson.