Thirty-eight minutes. That’s how long you have to wait for the good stuff in Godzilla vs. Kong. And by good stuff, I of course mean the sight of a gorilla punching a lizard so hard that the aircraft carrier beneath them buckles from the impact. It’s the image Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. have been building toward for the better part of a decade in their four-film MonsterVerse saga. Yet now that it’s here, it arrives less like the crescendo of an epic shared universe than it does as a late night B-movie on cable TV. But B-movies starring Godzilla and King Kong have always had their charms, and this is the first one with an astronomical budget to realize them.
As the shortest of Legendary’s MonsterVerse movies, Godzilla vs. Kong is also the slightest, with a multitude of humanoids running around shouting about Hollow Earths and gravitational inversions. But the viewer never loses the thread, even when the movie does: they’re merely ants scurrying over a framework which has been heavily tinkered with in post-production. As a consequence, the speaking characters have never been less engaging in the four MonsterVerse movies. They’ve also never been more efficiently disposed of—after those crucial 38 minutes—than by this dazzling collection of Kaiju battles.
Narratively, Godzilla vs. Kong is a muddle that’s been cut to the bone; visually, however, director Adam Wingard and his legion of animators have created the most dynamic giant monster fisticuffs to ever come out of the west. It’s the kind of movie that takes palpable joy in the way Hong Kong’s neon skyline catches the jagged edges of Godzilla’s silhouette in pinks and yellows. It’s also the kind of movie which then takes a greater joy in the big guy knocking that skyline down with Kong’s face.
You already know if you’re in or you’re out.
The mumbo jumbo that facilitates the fight night has something to do with the “Hollow Earth” theory from Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. After Godzilla attacks Florida—seemingly while unprovoked—Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) becomes convinced that the only thing that can stop him is an energy source at the center of the Earth. But to get there, they’re going to need Kong, the great ape of Skull Island, who for some time has been in captivity thanks to Monarch (the SHIELD of the MonsterVerse).
Skull Island has been destroyed, by the by, due to intense electrical storms. Kong and a native child named Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who he communicates with via sign language, are the lone survivors. But Dr. Lind and Kong’s keeper, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), are undaunted by these developments. After all, they’ve deduced the center of the Earth is just like Skull Island, and a perfect new home for Kong. Obviously. But to prove this Jules Verne theory, they’re going to need to transport Kong across international waters… and challenge Godzilla’s territorial opinion that no gorillas should be allowed off their island. A vigorous debate ensues.
Among Godzilla vs. Kong’s many delights, the story is not one of them. With broad characterizations as baffling as all six feet and four inches of Skarsgård’s Norse god physique being cast as a nebbish scientist, the tagline of the movie might as well have been “just go with it.” And luckily there is another, better story Wingard crafts around the eighth wonder of the world.
Nothing but scrappy vulnerability and lonely gazes, Wingard’s Kong makes it clear why there is no “King” in the title. He’s the underdog of the movie, introduced as a gentle soul who’d rather roll in the grass and listen to Elvis Presley and Bobby Vinton standards (no, really) than engage in mortal combat. Even his relationship with Jia suggests this is a mellower, more paternal Kong than the original 1933 ape, who’s eye for humans played a little more lewd. When it finally comes time to rumble, Kong’s perpetually overwhelmed by the fire-breathing dragon. This is unsurprising in the first round, given Zilla’s underwater advantage, but even in the ruins of Hong Kong, the ape seems outmatched as Godzilla strikes, moving in like a Komodo Dragon who’s cornered its prey.
It gives Kong the unlikely arc of Rocky Balboa: he’s a lovable small-time bruiser who just needs to go the distance with the champ. Conversely, it reduces the hero of the last two Godzilla movies to little more than a scaly bully, picking on a monster outside his weight class. No matter how you look at it though, it is far more entertaining than scenes of Skarsgård and Hall in their anti-gravity vehicles, which basically appear ready made for a Universal Studios attraction next year—and the less said about the C-plot to nowhere involving Millie Bobby Brown, Brian Tyree Henry, and Julian Dennison, the better.
This juxtaposition of grandly goofy spectacle and silly melodrama ironically brings Godzilla vs. Kong most in line with its Japanese forebears. Toho movies, particularly in the late Shōwa era of the 1960s and ‘70s, embraced the outlandish with their human characters because they knew those scenes were otherwise just filler. Wingard and Warner Bros. have apparently reached the same conclusion in their rush to the action.
And whether it’s Pacific sunset smackdowns or neon knockouts, the action in this movie is well-lit, clear, and cheerfully excessive. It’s the most brutal carnage in all of the MonsterVerse, and about a million miles from Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, which had an intense fixation with the human perspective of looking up. Godzilla vs. Kong doesn’t care about the human perspective, anymore than a child cares for the points-of-view of the Legos they’re smashing. Thus the level of urban destruction is so giddy and indulgent that it recalls the wildest Shōwa era donnybrooks where there was always one more cardboard temple to topple.
There’s a scene where Kong picks up a fiery 50-foot axe and swings it into his enemy’s neck. I wish I saw it in IMAX.
Early in the movie, a stock evil industrialist (Demián Bichir) says, “I love crazy ideas. They’ve made me rich.” He must be loaded by the end of this movie.
Godzilla vs. Kong opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max on Wednesday, March 31.