Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan), Millie Bobbie Brown (Stranger Things), Rebecca Hall (The Town), Brian Tyree Henry (Widows), Shun Oguri (Weathering with You), Eiza González (Baby Driver), Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2), Kyle Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street), Demáin Bichir (A Better Life)
Director: Adam Wingard (The Guest)
Writers: Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island)
Runtime: 1 hour 53 minutes
Release Date: 31st March (US/HBO Max), 1st April (UK/PVOD)
Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse has been one of the more peculiar attempts at crafting a cinematic universe, mainly because each successive film has totally reinvented the franchise whilst maintaining a solid continuity. What began as a fairly grounded and serious take on the Godzilla mythos has gradually shifted with each entry towards bonkers sci-fi blockbuster, itself mirroring the similar evolution into absurdity of the original Toho franchise. Now on its fourth entry, the series has now fully embraced that legacy and is ready to put out all the stops, and what better way to celebrate that than by finally delivering the ultimate rematch kaiju fans have been clamouring for: the King of the Monsters against the Eight Wonder of the World. Godzilla vs. Kong is a gonzo monster extravaganza packed full of stellar brawls, insane concepts and fan service surprises that more than delivers on the promise of its title. It’s just a shame that the plot and characters that support all of the spectacle is about as flimsy as the old miniature sets from the Japanese classics that inspired it.
Whilst a familiarity with the previous entries certainly enhances the experience, Godzilla vs. Kong is a mostly stand-alone story that should be followable to newcomers. Like many of the old kaiju films it takes obvious inspiration from, the plot is mostly an excuse to take the audience on a rollercoaster through its action set pieces and gimmicks, but now on a 2021 Hollywood scale. It moves at a non-stop pace as it breezes through its sub-two-hour running time, moving from sequence to sequence with only nominal downtime to re-establish the stakes. Clever plotting, character development and thematic depth are the last thing on the movie’s mind, and at times that care-free attitude can bolster the experience. Director Adam Wingard’s previous films have often evoked the spirit of 1980s B-movies, and he brings that same sensibility here but with modern toys to play with. By dialling these elements down to the bare minimum, it allows the film to focus entirely on the eye candy and, in doing so, creates one of the most unabashedly over-the-top blockbusters in recent memory. With that said, whilst neither Kong: Skull Island nor Godzilla: King of the Monsters had quite the same barefaced tenacity as Wingard’s film, both still managed to eke out just enough resonance to establish an emotional investment whilst still delivering on the spectacle. If watching those movies was like going to a trashy but earnest stage musical, Godzilla vs. Kong is more like an elaborately staged arena rock concert: the energy is intoxicating, everyone is having a blast and it’s never boring, but you’d be hard pressed to forget that it’s all just a show.
If anything has stayed consistent through the Monsterverse franchise, it’s been a tendency to hire a fantastic cast and then forgetting to do anything interesting with most of them. Only Millie Bobbie Brown and Kyle Chandler return as daughter and father Madison and Mark Russell from King of the Monsters, but the former has changed so much that she might as well be a totally new character whilst the latter only makes sporadic cameos. Alexander Skarsgård is the by-default lead as disgraced scientist Dr Nathan Lind, but his character is drawn in only the broadest of strokes and Skarsgård’s charisma can only carry that so far. Rebecca Hall is a bit more compelling as the Jane Goodall-inspired Dr Ilene Andrews, especially thanks to her sweet relationship with adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) but not by much.
Julian Dennison is hilarious as usual and certainly giving his all as Madison’s reluctant ally Josh but is given very little to work with, whilst Brian Tyree Henry chews the scenery as paranoid conspiracy podcaster Bernie to mixed effect. The film’s biggest weak spot is its human villains who, despite their cartoon supervillain evil plan being a lot of fun, are as flat as the paper their dialogue was written on. Demáin Bichir certainly has a hoot hamming it up as tech CEO Walter Simmons, but Eiza González as his crony daughter Maia is little more than a prop. Most disappointingly, the film’s one interesting wrinkle is the introduction of Shun Ogori as Ren Serizawa, the son of Ken Watanabe’s character from the previous films, as Simmons’ right-hand man. They even hint at a really interesting twist with his character…that they then immediately throw away. Why bother even making that connection to Serizawa if you’re not going to do something interesting with it?
With the human characters mostly awash with perfunctory stock clichés, it’s up to the kaiju to carry the heavy lifting and, bafflingly, they end up being the only ones with actual character arcs and interesting motivations. Kong is the emotional core of the film, having grown tired and even more lonely in the decades since the events of Skull Island, and his quest to find a new home would have made a compelling adventure all on its own. Godzilla is depicted as an antagonist for much of the runtime, but the filmmakers never outright paint him as a villain and both his destructive motivations and rivalry with Kong make sense within the context of the story. Saying much more would be delving into spoiler territory, but there are absolutely more monsters old and new on display other than the titular titans, and one in particular is certain to please diehard kaiju fans.
The action across the three previous Monsterverse films was a mixed bag. The Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla was scant on monster brawls and purposefully cut away from showing them at points, though it ultimately paid off with a stellar finale. Skull Island thankfully dropped this approach and went for a more traditional blockbuster presentation, whilst King of the Monsters did its best to marry the two styles. Godzilla vs. Kong, meanwhile, is a unique beast of its own. The action sequences are easily the most coherent of the series, set in well-lit locations with simple geography and featuring some of the most inventive fight choreography in a modern kaiju film. It truly feels like a natural evolution to the rubber suit clashes of the genre’s past, but at the same time it loses a lot of its verisimilitude. This is mainly due to the cinematography which, whilst gorgeous on a lighting level and great for showing off the fights, too often falls into the trap of using impossible CG camera angles. Whilst the filmmakers do still at times use low angles and long lenses to create a sense of scale and place your gaze as if looking up at these gargantuan creatures, it intercuts them with wide-angle close-ups and spinning aerial shots that break the immersion.
It’s just one detail in a production that is completely extra on every level, like the film’s wild production design that features gigantic biodomes, gravity-warping aircraft, tunnels through the earth’s core and the evil scientist lab to end all evil scientist labs. The visual effects have a slightly more cartoony flair but are consistently strong throughout, especially in the character animations that bring subtle hints of humanity to these legendary monsters, whilst Tom Holkenborg’s score is an epic mash-up of Zimmer-esque bombast and soothing Vangelis-inspired synth; in a landscape where so many blockbuster soundtracks sound the same, this one has flair all its own. However, easily the film’s biggest enemy is its structural editing, which makes it more than obvious that a lot of material was cut to get the film down to its breezy 113-minute runtime. Whether the film would be any more compelling or coherent with these scenes added back, I do not know, but their absence is certainly felt.
Godzilla vs. Kong is an indulgent bowl of pure sugar entertainment, cutting all the fluff and focusing entirely on delivering jaw-dropping ape-on-lizard carnage. There are certainly a bunch of easy parallels to be made to Batman v Superman (one scene in particular might as well have Kong plead to Godzilla to “save…Mothra”), but the more apt comparison would be Pacific Rim: Uprising. Beyond the genre connection, it is also a sequel that pays respect to its predecessor but drops all of its complexities and authenticity to essentially reinvent itself as an ultra-expensive Saturday morning cartoon. Whether that sounds appetising to you or not, Godzilla vs. Kong is certainly the dessert at the end of the Monsterverse meal, leaving you with a sweet taste in your mouth whilst lacking the nutrition the prior courses provided.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10