Legendary Pictures’ valiant attempt to establish a shared universe of giant monster movies hits its fourth instalment with Adam Wingard’s colourful and destructive Godzilla vs. Kong, a film that seems guaranteed to please existing fans without really capturing a new audience. If you are an ardent fan of this kind of over-the-top destructive mayhem, you can rest assured there is plenty of skyscraper-levelling chaos here. If you tend to get hung up on the typically superficial human side-story, you would be forgiven for giving it a miss.
When Godzilla returns, inexplicably ravaging the Florida coast, a secret mission is established to track down a fantastical power source deep inside the Earth – one that might be used to defeat him. To guide a team of scientists through this “hollow” world, they enlist the giant ape Kong – whose ancestors originated there.
A rematch between America and Japan’s most famous daikaiju has been a long time coming. Ishiro Honda’s King Kong vs Godzilla came out all the way back in 1962, and famously failed to crown a clear winner. This 2021 rematch actually does provide an answer to the question of who would win in a straight fight – although honestly the greatest loser seems to be Hong Kong, which loses Central, the mid-levels, and Causeway Bay in the process. It is a fabulous city in which to stage this mammoth showdown, given the vivid neon-lit skyline. Wingard stages it beautifully, with inventive visuals and solid pacing. Hong Kong gets a fairly extensive re-design – there’s a lot more room in this fictional version than in the actual city – but it is all in the name of giant monster fights, for which there is a strong audience-pleasing justification. This climax is worth the price of admission alone.
While Godzilla remains a deeply pleasing presence throughout the film, it is ultimately much more Kong’s story than his. Already well-established via Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (2017), here the so-called “eighth wonder of the world” is gifted with moments of levity as well as drama. He actually gets a proper character arc and personal connections with the human cast. It is a typical film of its kind, in which the monsters get an awful lot more attention than the human story – and we will get to that shortly, but it is worth appreciating just how much excellent work is done to make Kong a believable and likeable protagonist. For this reviewer’s money, Skull Island remains the best of Legendary’s four “monsterverse” features, and from that perspective Godzilla vs. King feels like a worthy follow-up.
My least favourite of the four remains Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla relaunch, whose dour tone and ponderous pacing attempted to recreate the ominous atmosphere of Honda’s 1954 original – without acknowledging that both Godzilla and movie-going audiences had changed. The three installments since have all run with the basic truth that audiences watch these films specifically because they want to watch two special effects pummel one another. The franchise has since become a constant chain a upping the ante in what viewers will accept before the entire enterprise collapses. Skull Island filled its titular locale with freakish creatures. King of the Monsters threw in classic Toho monsters Rodan, Ghidorah, and Mothra into the pot. Godzilla vs. Kong pushes the envelope still further, introducing an entire hollow world packed with gargantuan flying snakes, giant ape temples, and hungry chicken-bats. Even when Kong returns to the Earth’s surface the film continues to add outlandish new elements. This gleeful whimsy is what has gradually sold the Monsterverse to me. It is like watching a eight-year-old child playing with an array of action figures, in the best possible sense.
It is essentially a cliche to complain that the human elements of a monster movie are underwhelming, but it is a complaint that predictably holds true here. One plot thread sees a team of scientists follow Kong down into the hollow Earth, delivering the expected “oohs”, “ahs”, and terrified screams that humans always do in these kinds of movies. Rebecca Hall and Alexander Skarsgård acquit themselves without embarrassment, but it hardly feels a challenge for them. Eiza González, on the other hand, suffers from a particularly blandly-written character. She never gets a chance.
I had concerns prior to watching the film over a small deaf girl, the last survivor of the people of Skull Island, who appeared to share a psychic link with Kong. In practice Jia is a genuine surprise: a smart, funny character who turns out to be very different from I suspected. Kaylee Hottle plays her exceptionally well in what I’ve read is her first screen performance. She is outstanding. Better yet, Wingard and Legendary have cast an actual deaf performer as a deaf character. This is exactly the kind of representation of disability that makes me happy.
The other human subplot brings back Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and her father (Kyle Chandler) from Godzilla: King of the Monsters, as Madison teams up with a friend (Julian Dennison) and a mad conspiracy theorist (Brian Tyree Henry) to investigate the company that has bankrolled the hollow Earth expedition. It feels almost entirely like filler: undermotivated, unbelievable, and almost entirely irrelevant to the film’s overall plot. It is a deep shame, as I really enjoyed Brown’s character the last time around.
While the human end fails to engage, the monster end does wonderfully. Godzilla vs. Kong is noisy, explosive, messy and destructive – all in the classic crown-pleasing ways one looks for in the genre. Godzilla and Kong in particular have engaging personalities and feel superbly expressive. In a year when an uncomplicated fun time is in fairly short supply this is a nice temporary cure. If this is the end for the Monsterverse (King of the Monsters under-performed and Godzilla vs. Kong is getting released into a COVID-affected market), then at least it’s going out on something of a high.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.