Review: In ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ the big monsters brawl. And the audience actually wins
There is a moment early on in Adam Wingard’s deft, daft “Godzilla vs. Kong” that almost feels topical. A fleet of ships nervously bringing precious cargo across the ocean encounters Godzilla, and his razor-sharp, Himalayan dorsal fins neatly bisect an aircraft carrier or two. With its dazzling, scaled-up, crunchy blockbuster CGI, the sequence plays like a novel solution to the recent boat-stuck-in-the-Suez-Canal snafu that kept the world riveted for days.
But that moment is also notable for being the only time anything in this witty, rollicking, nonsense movie — which mashes up mythologies and movie references into one Jules-Verne-meets-"Tron” event — even lightly brushes against reality. Otherwise, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is magnificent in its refusal to be relevant or serious or important in any way. It’s a truly noble aim when even Ishiro Honda’s dinky 1962 release “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” in which a dude encased in spongy rubber had a couple of hilarious slappy-fights with another dude wrapped in old carpet, billed itself as a media satire.
If the infinitely slicker new movie is an allegory at all, it’s an allegory for what would happen if a really big, tool-using primate had an ancient beef with a really big radioactive dinosaur. And after so many tentpoles that have insisted on being metaphors for this or that, the abundance of sound and fury here — take a bow, Tom Holkenborg, composer of the majestic synth score — blissfully signifying nothing, qualifies as a colossal, giddily escapist relief.
The unseriousness of it all is signaled from the start, when a lumbering Kong — now matured into the largest incarnation of the ornery ape ever — grouchily awakens on a utopian Skull Island like a trucker with a hangover. Sweet doo-wop music plays as he scratches his rear en route to his waterfall shower. Just when it seems like we’re in for all-out comedy, with Kong perhaps ready to toss a few SUV-sized Alka-Seltzers into a handy freshwater fjord, up pops his playmate Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the deaf Indigenous orphan with whom he has a special, narratively convenient bond.
But Kong isn’t playful today; he uproots a tree, fashions it into a spear and flings it angrily into the sky. Unexpectedly, it lodges there, shorting out some circuitry, and so we learn that Skull Island is under a massive geodesic dome, mostly — as exposition machine and Jia’s surrogate mom Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) exposits — to protect the Big Guy from the tingly spidey-sense of Godzilla, the world’s other Alpha Titan with whom Kong has a long-standing Hatfield/McCoy-style rivalry.
Eiza González became famous at 15 as the star of own TV series in Mexico. Hollywood hasn’t been as easy, even after her “Baby Driver” breakthrough. But her fight to bust stereotypes is paying off.
Already horror director Wingard (“You’re Next,” “Death Note”), who seems to have relaxed into blockbuster filmmaking more easily than others who’ve made a similar small-film-to-big-film leap, has shamelessly flouted the don’t-show-the-monster-till-you-really-have-to rule. And immediately he breaks it again, whipping across the globe to Florida where Godzilla is launching an apparently unprovoked attack on one of those Big Secret Facilities that have never in the history of cinema been up to anything good.
This one is run by APEX, a shady conglomerate headed by a clearly megalomaniac Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), and it’s already under haphazard investigation from the inside by low-level engineer and conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), who gets some of the film’s clunkiest lines, but hey, at least they’re delivered by Brian Tyree Henry. He will soon, along with rebellious teen Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), survivor of 2019’s vastly inferior “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” and her best friend Josh (Julian Dennison) form an intrepid, if rather irritating, #TeamGodzilla.
Meanwhile, #TeamKong is rounded out by toothy geek Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), a largely disparaged Hollow Earth theorist who is recruited by Simmons to convince Dr. Andrews that Kong is their best hope of combating the latest Godzilla rampage. For some reason this will involve escorting Kong to his fabled subterranean ancestral homeland, a perilous journey that can only be achieved with the help of APEX tech.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” director Adam Wingard and visual effects supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin on crafting the film’s “bombastic” kaiju battles.
Why any of this has to happen, except maybe to level the playing field (Godzilla’s radiation-beam blasts give him a bit of an unfair advantage over an adversary who’s otherwise just a really big gorilla with an eye for the ladies) is never clear. But then, the plotting of “Godzilla vs. Kong” is rudimentary when it’s not ridiculous, and while it does give a range of very good actors the chance to prove that they too can say things like “Kong bows to no one!” and “There can be only one Alpha!” with a straight face, it’s also very much not the point.
The point instead is Ben Seresin’s fluid and well-lit photography capturing Godzilla silhouetted against the neon of a soon-to-be-razed Kowloon skyline. The point is Kong flinging fighter jets around like they’re darts, and bouncing happily about a zero-gravity underground wonderland, using one pteranodon to beat another pteranodon to death. The point is that we get a fairly definitive answer to “who would win in a fight?” that won’t entirely disappoint either faction, but, to quote an internet joke that remains funny no matter how often you’ve heard it, also is not a cop-out to do with both the antagonists’ moms being named Mothra.
Warner Bros.’ ‘Godzilla Vs. Kong’ debuted to $121.8 million in international markets, while Universal’s ‘Nobody’ was solid in the U.S.
What it lacks in guiding philosophy, this hefty dose of Kaiju-jitsu makes up for with an inexcusably large budget that could not be more all-up-there if there were actual $100 bills stapled to every inch of the screen — that and the myriad movie references that whip by. Some are blatantly obvious, like the aforementioned “Tron,” “Journey to Center of the Earth,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Jurassic Park” and so on.
Others flicker up so briefly that you might wonder whether perhaps your brain, absent anything else to do, is manufacturing little synapse-firestorms of allusion where none were intended. Is Wingard deliberately referencing Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja”? Michael Mann’s “The Keep”? Are we supposed to think about “Lethal Weapon 2" when Kong appears, quite nonchalantly, to reset a dislocated shoulder? Very likely not. But, like most of the thrillingly well-rendered large-scale destruction, in which evacuated skyscrapers keep getting pulverized by errant swipes of scaly tail or meaty fist, it’s a good time and it doesn’t hurt anybody. At least no one we care about.
So after 2014’s beautiful but rather boring “Godzilla,” the enjoyable, moderately inventive “Kong: Skull Island” three years later, and the absolutely incoherent “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” this fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse is as dumb as the franchise has ever been. Only this time it knows it and leans into it.
It will disappoint the 14 people who come to “Godzilla vs. Kong” looking for an insightful disquisition on the human condition embodied by relatable characters engaged in logical problem-solving. But who cares, when the rest of us get King Kong in a helicopter-hammock, and a chance to become reacquainted with a concept that has been as absent from recent blockbuster filmmaking as it has from our recent lives. What is it called again? Oh, yes. Fun.
'Godzilla vs. Kong'
Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Opens March 31 in general release and streaming on HBO Max
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