Note: The writer of this review watched Godzilla Vs. Kong on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Before we get into Godzilla Vs. Kong, an apology. In a 2019 review of Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, this writer stated, “You can’t just have two hours of kaiju slapping each other around like a gargantuan WWE highlights reel.” While that statement was technically correct—you do need a few humans to explain who these creatures are and why they’re tussling like drunks outside a bar on St. Patrick’s Day—it does not accurately reflect The A.V. Club’s stance on monster-on-monster violence. And for that, we are truly sorry. As it turns out, King Kong choke-slamming Godzilla into a skyscraper is more than enough to keep an audience entertained. It just helps if you’re able to see what’s going on.
Praising the legibility of the action might seem like reaching for something nice to say about this film. But after King Of The Monsters drenched its gorgeous creature design in obscuring sheets of rain, being able to follow the blow-by-blow of the gargantuan punch-outs in director Adam Wingard’s Godzilla Vs. Kong is enough to get a fan bouncing in their seat like a kid at the circus. For better or for worse, each of the four films in Legendary’s MonsterVerse has allowed its director to add his personal touch to the franchise. For Wingard, whose You’re Next and The Guest are among the finest genre films of the past decade, that means two things: his signature needle drops, and a delirious rollercoaster approach to big, dumb popcorn fun. After watching Wingard get lost in other peoples’ intellectual property with Blair Witch and Death Note, it’s a welcome surprise to see him reassert his personality—as much as he can, anyway, in a mega-blockbuster like Godzilla Vs. Kong.
We open with one of those aforementioned needle drops, as Kong awakens for another day reigning over paradise to the tune of Bobby Vinton’s “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea.” It’s been 40 years since the events of Kong: Skull Island, which does nominally explain why he’s a couple hundred feet taller here than he was there. (Apparently, the big guy has been eating his vegetables.) But, as Wingard quickly reveals, the amber skies of Skull Island are actually a projection over the unfathomably large dome where scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is keeping Kong trapped in a simian version of The Truman Show. There, she studies him, trying to break the interspecies communication barrier with the help of Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf orphan born on Skull Island who has a special, perhaps even psychic bond with Kong.
Then, for reasons that don’t become clear until later, Godzilla returns. (Kyle Chandler soberly utters an all-timer of hokey Godzilla dialogue: “Godzilla’s out there, and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why.”) No longer a benevolent protector of mankind, the radioactive lizard king stomps out of the ocean mad as hell, and immediately lays waste to a facility belonging to shady multinational tech corporation Apex Cybernetics. This early attack also introduces us to Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), the host of a podcast called Titan Talk whose obsession with conspiracy theories will someday mark Godzilla Vs. Kong as a product of its era. Two and a half years after the movie was shot, lines about Bernie showering with bleach and believing in a secret shadow government land a little differently than they presumably did when they were written. But to be fair, how could the film’s five screenwriters have known that Qanon—at that point a small, mockable fringe internet cult—would get wildly out of hand during the pandemic none of us saw coming?
Things only get more outlandish from there, as Monarch agents recruit disgraced scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to lead a top-secret journey to the center of the hollow Earth accompanied by Andrews, Jia, and Apex Cybernetics executive Maya Simmons (Eiza González). For reasons that are only superficially explained, Kong is essential to the success of this mission, and so the big guy is pumped full of sedatives and strapped to an aircraft carrier on its way to Antarctica. (The only portal to the center of the Earth accessible to humans is in Antarctica. Don’t worry about it.) That leaves Kong vulnerable to an attack by his “ancient enemy” Godzilla, who shows up to smash multiple warships with a single flick of his massive tail as the two struggle in a tightly edited underwater fight scene. “Kong bows to no one,” Andrews explains, and he doesn’t seem to like being woken up from his nap either.
Of these twin titans, Kong is by far the more humanized of the two in this film, and overall gets more screen time than his scaly adversary. Eventually, the action makes its way to Hong Kong, where Godzilla and Kong spend the last 45 minutes of this 113-minute film having a knock-down, drag-out, professional wrestling-style brawl. But first, we’re treated to a CGI set piece at the center of the Earth that’s one of the film’s giddiest. Shot from the perspective of the tiny ship containing our heroes, the sequence sends a camera swooshing past Kong’s roaring mouth and over, under, and through upside-down mountains and prehistoric creatures, the dizzying camerawork combining with the thunderous sound design for an effect that’s not unlike a simulator ride at a theme park. We still can’t recommend you see this (or any movie) in a theater, but we will say that Godzilla Vs. Kong appears to have been designed as an immersive, seat-rumbling IMAX experience.
Though the eccentric soundtrack choices—Elvis, Judas Priest, and The Hollies all pop up at different points throughout the film—and the creative use of neon light to illuminate the final battle scenes give Godzilla Vs. Kong a distinctive personality, the script is as generically overstuffed as you might expect from a blockbuster of this size. In terms of delivering the pseudoscientific exposition and snappy jokes, Godzilla Vs. Kong has an advantage over its overly serious predecessor in that the cast seems to have gotten the memo that what they are saying is very silly, and that that’s part of the fun. But even with skilled comedians like Henry and Julian Dennison (a.k.a. the kid from Hunt For The Wilderpeople) handling the quippier dialogue, the volume of jokes is so high in the latter half of the movie that some are bound to fall flat.
For a movie whose appeal is as elemental as “big monsters fight good,” Godzilla Vs. Kong has a lot of characters (too many, really) and a whole lot of plot, much of which will make you sound as batty as good old Bernie if you try to explain it aloud. That’s okay, though. Much like its giant stars’ 1962 title fight, this is a thoroughly unserious film, with a bombastic score, wisecracking sidekicks, evil CEOs, radioactive battle axes, a titan-sized defibrillator, and even a moment reminiscent of the infamous “Martha” scene from Batman V Superman. There may be a moral somewhere in Godzilla Vs. Kong about hubris and greed, but really, this movie knows you came to see monsters punch each other. And monsters punching each other you shall get.