It wouldn’t normally be high praise to mention that you can see what’s happening in a film. It’s certainly not the most praiseworthy aspect of Godzilla vs. Kong. But after the colossal mess that was Godzilla: King of the Monsters, having a single clue what’s meant to be going on is a serious step up for WB and Legendary’s latest ‘Monsterverse’ movie.
Anyone familiar with the work of director Adam Wingard will probably be going into this wondering how, after the disappointing Death Note adaptation and the shaky Blair Witch reboot, he might be able to claw back some of the personal, human touches that made his prior genre pieces so gleeful. Almost as if to answer the audience directly we immediately enter the film with a typical Wingardian needle drop and a normal dude waking up and just going about his day. It’s just that the normal dude in this situation just so happens to be a giant gorilla. It’s a playful re-introduction to Kong and sets up two important aspects right off the bat: that Kong is the real protagonist here, and that we’re going to have a lot of fun with that notion.
...a welcome sense of fun.
Following the defeat of King Gidorah, the Apex Cybernetics corporation is in the process of developing technology capable of stopping the titans. It’s become apparent that, following a series of seemingly random attacks, Godzilla might not be the most dependable defender of humanity and so humanity must find a way to stand up for itself. Meanwhile, the older, wiser and greyer Kong lives in semi-contentedness on Skull Island under the watchful eye of the series’ good again / bad again para-governmental Monarch corporation. But with an ancient rivalry bubbling to the surface, what chance does humanity stand of keeping these two behemoths apart?
Finally, we have a Godzilla movie that’s not afraid to really lean into the goofy conspiracy nonsense hinted at in previous films: the hollow earth theory. Taking genuine elements from both Vernian fantasy and real-world nut-jobbery, the theory that there is another layer of habitable earth under the crust becomes central to the story in an incredibly satisfying way. Pure nonsense from start to finish, the film abandons any of the worldly issues which 2014’s Godzilla toyed with, and adopts the happy-go-lucky, ‘anything goes’ tone of Skull Island. Wingard’s tackling of the crackpot nature of a hidden world under our feet is an almost improvisational “yes and…” approach where Kong is the wielder of a radioactive axe, gravity can be reversed, and enormous bats protect a Vril-like magic energy source. He also knows how to twist a plot with style.
Sadly, Wingard can’t style out the continuing problems with a screenplay co-written by franchise mainstay Max Borenstein. People still say and do things seemingly because the plot simply demands it, the jokes are often too quippy and desperately try-hard and come awkwardly to the mouths of the characters. Boresntein is presumably there to provide some sort of continuity to the movie but with the wildly varying tones of the three previous entries, there’s not really an adequate justification for continuity.
The punchier, sillier moments of humour undoubtedly come from Thor: Ragnarok co-writer Eric Pearson, and there’s definitely some of that tongue in cheek wackiness creeping in at the edges. It’s a welcome sense of fun that luckily remains the prevailing tone of a movie in danger of getting bogged down in its own lore. There’s an overstuffed script to contend with, flapping unnecessary plotlines all over the place, cartoonish villainy still rubs up against soap opera melodrama, but at the core of it is a group of people who have suddenly realised that, rather than an Oscar-baiting drama, this is an opportunity to have some fun.
...some of the most impressive giant monster fights ever seen in cinema.
Charles Dance’s bad guy Jonah is notable by his absence, replaced here by another ruthless power hungry any-villain played by Demián Bichir (last seen in Midnight Sky and soon to be seen again in Chaos Walking). Setting out to aid then foil his nefarious plans are the delightful Alexander Skarsgård (Hold the Dark) and the even more delightful Rebecca Hall (Professor Marston & the Wonder Women) who throw themselves valiantly into the fray. Also showing up again are series weak links Kyle Chandler doing and saying things as gut-wrenchingly preposterous as in King of the Monsters and Millie Bobby Brown saddled with a disposable plot but gamely aided by Julian Dennison (grown up somewhat since his breakout role in Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
But the human story is not what we’re tuning in for here. It has never been more than side dressing in setting up excuses to have beloved brutes make fisticuffs at each other and the breath-taking action scenes in Godzilla Vs. Kong succeed on every level. Most importantly, they’re joyful entertainment. The fight choreography between the giants is full of visual flair and pantomime, giving their encounters the feel of a wrestling match – little moments include Kong taking a second to look around and formulate his next series of attacks and at one point we even get a knowing smirk from Godzilla himself.
The two titans scream in each other’s faces, reminiscent of engaging in smack talk before duking it out for WWE. It’s a very human fight which, while sounding a touch out of character for a lizard and a silverback, takes us away from the CGI messes that have dominated previous Godzilla entries, and back toward a slightly more naïve and yet somehow more convincing “guys in suits” style. Clearly enacted through a mixture of motion capture and production design, it gives the combat a weight and heft that is typically missing from the weightless, effortless destruction of similar blockbuster spectacles. When set against some great set design and some instantly iconic lighting, the climactic battles are some of the most impressive giant monster fights ever seen in cinema.
And if you’re not coming for the giant monster fights, what the heck are you even doing here?
Godzilla Vs. Kong is out now, available from most streaming services as a premium rental.
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