Monsters smash stuff!
Godzilla vs. Kong feels like 65 percent of a good movie. Not 65 percent good as in quality; it feels truncated, like it was hacked down to size from some much longer, possibly more narratively coherent cut. Memorable actors (Lance Reddick, for instance, or Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison) appear out of nowhere, unexplained, and get suspiciously little screen time. Most of the major plot points are more logical-ish than actually logical. And it’s snappier than expected, wrapping up under the two-hour mark. Mild bafflement reigns throughout.
But you should not take this to mean that it’s a slog. On the contrary: I loved watching this movie. I wish I could have seen it on an IMAX screen. After the twin misery of its most recent predecessors — 2017’s clankingly clumsy Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which seared my retinas without justifying its existence — Godzilla vs. Kong is a welcome, bombastic relief. What Godzilla vs. Kong lacks in narrative logic, it makes up in visual fun, even imagination. And that’s all too lacking in an industry dominated by movies that sacrifice imagery for story beats.
The plot is basically right there in the title, and since the film combines two “cinematic universes” — to borrow the exasperating marketing term — it spends a lot of time cutting between groups of people on various quests related to the titular titans. Kong lives on Skull Island in a Truman Show-like dome, watched over by his Monarch handler Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adoptive daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), an Iwe girl whom Kong rescued when her parents were killed. (Monarch, as you may recall, is the secretive scientific organization that monitors and protects titans like Kong and Godzilla, which it believes are vital to the continuing existence of the Earth.) Jia is deaf, and communicates with Kong via sign language.
Meanwhile, in Florida, a conspiracy theorist named Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry, who should be in everything) used to work at Apex Cybernetics but now runs a paranoid podcast about what Apex is doing. Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), now a bit more of a snotty teen, is a fan of the pod, much to the consternation of her Monarch deputy director father Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler). Godzilla hasn’t been heard from in years, but he suddenly makes landfall in Florida and attacks the Pensacola Apex facility, which seems like an out-of-character move to the humans who’ve grown used to thinking of him as a protector of mankind. Now Godzilla must be stopped. With Bernie and her buddy Josh Valentine (Dennison), Madison is determined to investigate why Godzilla has attacked, and the trio stumbles on some pretty wild stuff — though nothing that will shock Godzilla movie aficionados.
There’s a lot more going on here. Alexander Skarsgård plays an improbably handsome former Monarch scientist named Dr. Nathan Lind, who sits around gloomily theorizing about the earth being hollow. The Monarch organization needs him to go to the center of the planet to find a new power source they think is located there, and for reasons that are only moderately clear, Kong is their best crack at finding it. So Lind teams up with Andrews and Jia to get on a huge ship and then take some fancy Monarch-developed technology to the center of the earth.
And, well, there’s still a lot more. It’s impressive, in a way, what’s packed into this film. Writers Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, who wrote the best installment in the Legendary Monsterverse series, 2014’s Godzilla, are desperately braiding together a lot of strands, and because everything moves so quickly, it’s easy to let plot holes fade away. Director Adam Wingard cut his teeth in low-budget horror (You’re Next, The Guest) and doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with actors; tellingly, it’s the funniest ones (Henry and Dennison in particular) who seem most like actual people and less like exposition devices.
But Godzilla vs. Kong glosses over these shortcomings with visual excellence. Most blockbuster fight scenes are visually incomprehensible, with seemingly very little thought put into where the camera is, what needs to be seen, and how to keep the audience rooted in space and time. Not so with Godzilla vs. Kong, which absolutely nails it. One fight scene is set at sea, another against a neon cityscape. There is tumbling and slugging and smashing, and at all moments I could follow the action. They’re a blast.
In the 2014 Godzilla, most of the fight scenes were shot from a human’s-eye perspective; at times the audience only sees Godzilla walk (or thunder) by from street level, half-blocked by skyscrapers. Here, the perspective shifts to the monsters, heavily favoring Kong; he is, after all, the primate in the fight. The shift to monster perspective helps underline how tiny and inconsequential the humans are in this mega-battle. They think they can do something — steal power, shoot weapons, create technologies — but the titans have been on the earth since long before the humans arrived, and there’s a good chance they’ll still be here, roaming around, when we’re gone.
And then there’s the hollow earth sequence, which seems to draw from both Jules Verne and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Narratively, it’s a little awkward. But if you told me it was written into the story just so we could get those scenes, I’d be satisfied. Outside of some science fiction (and it’s been a while since there was a great sci-fi blockbuster), it’s rare to see something actually awe-inducing in what is, basically, a movie about big monsters fighting each other.
The only disappointment that really lingers is the Hollywood machine’s clear disinterest in thinking about the metaphorical dimensions of both Godzilla and Kong. (I know, I know. Stick with me.) Since Godzilla emerged in Japanese films in the 1950s, the creature has alternately been read as standing in for the atomic bomb, American imperialism, natural disasters, Japanese amnesia about its own imperialist history, and a lot more. Some of the Godzilla films are lighthearted and weird; others are a little more somber. Similarly, the various Kong installments have ranged from queasily racist caricatures to allegories about colonialism and Western destruction. And King Kong and Godzilla have even fought before, in a massively popular 1962 Japanese film. There’s a rich history to work with there.
Godzilla vs. Kong does make a few gestures toward some popular blockbuster near-apocalypse themes: the potential for environmental destruction, or for our technologies to turn on us. Both are common tropes in contemporary apocalypse stories. The movie doesn’t spend too much time explaining them, and even then it possibly does more than it needed to. We know the drill: secret threat, probably from an evil corporation; ordinary heroes break in and try to fix it; threat averted, at least for now.
But given the rich history of both Godzilla and Kong, it’s sad to see such a muddled story, without an allegorical layer attached. The silliness is fine, but these are serious times, and it wouldn’t hurt to slip in some deeper meaning along with the slugging and the radiation power-ups and the thrill rides through the center of the earth.
That said, Godzilla vs. Kong is a great reminder of what’s most fundamental to the art of cinema: the images. You can have a movie without a story, and you can have a silent movie, but you can’t have a movie without anything to look at. That it’s so rare to see a blockbuster with a developed visual sensibility and well-choreographed fighting testifies to how much Hollywood has come to favor familiar characters and fan service over what makes the movies so magical. And whatever I might quibble with in Godzilla vs. Kong’s storytelling, I can’t wait to see it on a big screen.
Godzilla vs. Kong opens in theaters and on HBO Max on April 2.