Despite being the 36th movie in the Godzilla franchise (and the 12th in the King Kong franchise, I suppose), Godzilla vs. Kong manages to be pretty clever with its kaiju. They are absolutely glorious. And for a movie very clearly made by committee, that’s something to celebrate.
Godzilla vs. Kong even summons the ingenuity to have a likeable character or two, quite an achievement given Legendary’s so-called Monsterverse has a bemusing habit of offing its best characters. 2014’s Godzilla killed off Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who I think would’ve done an outstanding job being the central human anchor for this universe, as the characters introduced in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters sure as hell don’t succeed. King of the Monsters added insult to injury, killing off Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the only one making the cast of disposable sacks remotely bearable. To note, Godzilla vs. Kong keeps most of these characters, probably due to contractual obligations (this was filming by the time King of the Monsters released). The movie seems embarrassed by this and opts to give the Kong side of the story much more TLC, which I’m happy to report does pay off (it’s still not amazing, but it’s relatively good).
But we’re not here for the people, who are more so little plot ants to carry us from one beat to the next. We’re here for the title monsters, giving Godzilla vs. Kong some grace in that it doesn’t need to try very hard story-wise, as that isn’t the gambit. “Kong whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is working at a Skull Island containment facility, where Kong is isolated from the rest of the world in fear that Godzilla will detect him and come to assert dominance. Ilene’s adoptive (I think) daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has formed a special bond with Kong. Meanwhile, Godzilla has become extremely pissy and attacks a Florida facility belonging to very obviously shady tech company Apex Cybernetics, prompting Titan (the universe’s name for kaiju) organization Monarch’s concern that Godzilla has become a threat versus a protector as previously thought. This then prompts Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown) to join forces with Titan conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Bryan Tyree Henry) and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison), and the trio investigate Apex, reasoning that Godzilla had to have a reason for specifically attacking them. This line of thought doesn’t cross any other character’s mind.
As for Apex themselves, founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) convinces Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) – a scientist discredited for his theory about a “Hollow Earth” in the planet’s centre being responsible for the Titans’ origins and evolution – to use Kong to investigate the Hollow Earth. Thus, Lind joins forces with Andrews and her (again, I think) daughter, along with Simmons’ daughter, Maia (Eiza González), and they go on a little odyssey with Kong.
One must note that Godzilla vs. Kong is really a Kong movie ft. Godzilla – probably for the best, as the Godzilla end of the story is pretty desolate. Henry tries, but he’s shackled by a script that really would love to skim over character details, such that he’s stuck vomiting rushed exposition. Dennison is absolutely wasted, and Brown is just there. (Spoilers) In the end, they discover that Apex is developing Mechagodzilla to finally overthrow Godzilla as the… apex. It’s a subtle film.
What really gets me about the Godzilla end of the story is how a better, more narratively cohesive storyline was staring the filmmakers right in the face. Mechagodzilla is controlled by Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri). Note that he is the son of Ishirō from the past two Godzilla movies, as this movie isn’t keen to dwell on that. Also note that his father died in King of the Monsters, sacrificing himself to revive Godzilla. Also note that Apex is using a King Ghidorah skull from King of the Monsters. I like to imagine a version of Godzilla vs. Kong‘s script exists where we follow Serizawa helping develop Mechagodzilla, finding a way to acquire the Ghidorah skull, tying into loose plot threads from King of the Monsters, giving Serizawa’s family’s arc some depth, and also giving Mechagodzilla more impact than it basically showing up out of nowhere. Instead, we get Brown and co. bumbling about and managing to flank a startling lack of security for a company that managed to dig a Blade Runner-esque tunnel from Florida to Hong Kong. Worst still, none of the trio are actually doing anything until the very end. The filmmakers seem at least somewhat aware that this is bad and keep most of these scenes brisk, so there’s that if nothing else.
Conversely, the Kong plot matters to the overall story, and its greatest strength is Kong himself – a hugely expressive character, and the movie rightfully plays to Kong’s humanoid strengths, planting him as the protagonist. Kong’s relationship to Jia slots into your typical animal-human bond tale, but it’s effective – thanks to Hottle’s performance and Kong’s excellent character animation – and gives this side of the story way more emotion than the Godzilla side can hope to conjure. Lind and Andrews are decently watchable, with Skarsgård avoiding playing the macho leading man, instead opting for an ’80s-style mildly reluctant hero. Hall doesn’t do a ton, but she makes Andrews pleasant in a “I guess I don’t want to see you die when monsters throw down” way.
The Kong plot also brings us to the Hollow Earth, a lovely bit of sci-fi excess that the movie didn’t need to do but I’m pleased it did. It’s hard not to admire Godzilla vs. Kong‘s lack of restraint towards its sci-fi/fantasy elements – and really, why not? It’s a movie about giant impossible creatures causing massive swaths of destruction for our entertainment, why not throw the kitchen sink (especially when it looks as beautiful as this)? The Hollow Earth’s a fun bit of world-building, opening the door to future movies without forcing teases.
Of course, the Hollow Earth isn’t Godzilla vs. Kong‘s big-ticket item (but it’s a nice bonus) – that honour belongs to Godzilla and Kong and their inevitable versus-ing. The monsters’ Hong Kong fight is outstanding, taking full advantage of their distinct characteristics to choreograph a visceral and genuinely rousing centrepiece brawl. It’s aggressive, too, showcasing each monster at arguably the most primal and violent they’ve ever been, all under tremendously satisfying neon lighting. It’s among the very best fights in kaiju cinema and a joy to watch on a theatre screen.
The other two battles – one at sea, one against Mechagodzilla – are decent-to-good, never quite reaching the heights of the main Hong Kong fight. The one at sea’s quite fun in that Kong uppercuts Godzilla, followed by Godzilla bitch slapping Kong back, and I will never not enjoy either of those things, but it gets lost a little bit within its chaotic cutting and an excess of water effects. The Mechagodzilla fight’s also fun insomuch that you have Godzilla and Kong teaming against one of Godzilla’s historic nemeses, though it’s at the disadvantage of shortly following Godzilla and Kong’s one-on-one centrepiece battle and doesn’t really compete, ditching the cinematic neon for an overcast sky and drab neutral colours. That, and I have a disdain for this Mechagodzilla’s design – it’s a spindly thing more reminiscent of a Transformer than Mechagodzilla as we know and love it (its lack of teeth and plates are salient). A real bummer given that Godzilla and Kong both look exquisite. Kong’s design has never intrigued in its 88 years of existence (the brief is a large gorilla, not exactly open to massive creative liberties), but the monster’s facial expressions and overall movements are lovely achievements. And while a CGI Godzilla will never be quite as personally fulfilling as some person running around in a rubber suit, this is easily Hollywood’s best incarnation of the creature (that said, I have a minor gripe with its oddly bear-like snout, which has existed since Godzilla ’14 and throws me a little every time).
All told, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers exactly what it ought to and a little bit more, certainly improving over King of the Monsters by only having half the human characters completely flop instead of nearly the whole lot, and we get some truly exciting kaiju fights that aren’t shrouded in nighttime rain. It doesn’t threaten the top-tier Godzilla movies – like 1954’s Godzilla, or 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla – though it is snugly in the better-half, for whatever that’s worth (King Kong movies are largely trash, save for the 1933 original and 2005 remake, so Godzilla vs. Kong ranks as one of that franchise’s best without much effort). As for the future of Legendary’s monster movies, I look forward to the inevitable Kong sequel that further explores the Hollow Earth, promising some nice pulp fantasy. As for the lizard’s next outing, God help us all if we’re latched with King of the Monsters‘ characters yet again.