The return of the Godzilla franchise from American filmmakers has been a mixed bag so far. 2014’s Godzilla pulsed with energy and a good story, while 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters had an incoherent plot and action sequences. That movie, along with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, set up the ultimate monster face-off, Godzilla vs. Kong.
In many ways, the new film borrows from the best and worst impulses of the previous two Godzilla movies. On the bad side, there is just way too much going on with the plot and too many characters to track. There’s Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a conspiracy-loving podcaster who works for Apex Cybernetics, a mysterious company led by the nefarious Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) whose headquarters Godzilla attacks early in the film. There’s Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), one of only two returning characters, who joins forces with Bernie to investigate Apex, along with her friend Josh (Julian Dennison).
On the Kong side, there’s scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who lives on Skull Island to study the great ape and keep him under control. Her daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), is deaf and has forged a connection with Kong through sign language. After the Godzilla attack, kaiju researcher Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is convinced by Simmons to approach Andrews and persuade her to let Kong out of captivity to save the world from Godzilla’s destruction, a quest that involves concepts like the “Hollow Earth” and “gravitational inversion.”
On the plus side, the filmmakers, led by director Adam Wingard, know what audiences have come to see — Godzilla and King Kong in action — and they don’t make us wait long to see them. The first look at Kong comes two minutes in, first look at Godzilla comes 10 minutes in, and they return to each regularly throughout the film, bringing lots of chest beating, roars, and destruction with them.
Just like King of the Monsters, there’s almost no point in trying to figure out the human-level plot mechanics. All you really need to know is that Godzilla, who saved humanity from other kaiju in the previous film, is now being viewed as evil by many, and Kong is the only one who can make things right again. They only directly clash a few times throughout the film, but each one is thrilling and, thankfully, not muddled by fast-moving action where it’s difficult to understand what’s happening.
The filmmakers attempt to keep things grounded by showing Kong’s connection with Jia, a technique that mostly works. It’s not as easy to relate to Godzilla, but they throw in a few scenes that show it as more than just a mindless monster. Unfortunately, that all goes out the window in the climactic sequence, in which innumerable buildings get destroyed, likely causing the deaths of thousands of people. The destruction is to be expected to a certain degree, but the way it’s presented, with no introspection about the human toll, comes off as callous and shallow entertainment.
The film is obviously CGI-heavy, but the filmmakers seem to have gone a hybrid route in how it’s employed. The look of the monsters is high-tech and detailed, but there appears to be an homage to the lo-fi method of the original Godzilla movies, as many buildings look like practical models being smashed. Given that they’re being ruined by the CGI monsters, it’s surely just smoke and mirrors, but it’s a fun concept nonetheless.
Most of the acting in the film is, shall we say, not subtle. For instance, Henry, who’s been great in the FX show Atlanta and almost everything else he’s been in, is reduced to wild rants that don’t do him any favors. Only Hall and Hottle are allowed to be low-key, and it’s the reason that they wind up being the heart of the film.
Godzilla vs. Kong is far from a good movie, but it’s actually an improvement over the abominable King of the Monsters. For moviegoers who are starved for blockbuster entertainment, it does the trick as long as you’re willing to leave your brain and most of your humanity at the door.
Godzilla vs. Kong debuts in theaters and on HBO Max on March 31.