Whatever happened to Ken Watanabe’s steely mini-sermon of “let them fight” from 2014’s Godzilla? Cast aside all the screenwriting urges for world-building or acting egos for showy screen time. The blueprint for any good monster movie of any brand is as simple as what Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa said before the final act of Gareth Edwards’ MonsterVerse starter.
Punch up the peril. Amplify the spectacle. Turn the big boys loose. That’s it. Should it really be that hard, especially when you pair the two most popular monster properties in cinema history? They’re billed as ancient enemies of a never-ending rivalry. Would it really be that difficult to stand back in Godzilla vs. Kong and “let them fight?” Evidently, it still is. Apparently, monsters are still dragged down by convolution and pesky people.
After defeating all comers in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the prehistoric sea monster has laid low as the reigning alpha predator. Only one Titan remains as a potential tournament opponent, one actually bracketed in shameless “March Madness” fashion by graphics in the opening credits. It’s Kong, the enormous ape of 1970s Skull Island lore, reintroduced by a cheesy Bobby Vinton song as if he’s a mumblecore indie character getting up to do his morning hygiene routine before heading to work, if that work was being the king of his jungle turf. Kong has grown older and larger in the decades since. His confined habitat is now a Monarch facility shielded from the outside world (and Godzilla) by a massive dome.
Enter all the nettlesome humans of narrative entanglement in Godzilla vs. Kong. Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall of Holmes & Watson) is the diligent anthropological linguist working to communicate with Kong. Where she tries with education, her adopted native daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) succeeds with emotional attachment to the giant ape. That diminutive unity will eventually lead her to be the protected muse that stands unafraid in action to come while mutely delivering on-command single teardrops of melodrama for the camera to capture.
While the world cowers in fearful preparations for when the next Titan will appear, Apex Cybernetics, led by CEO Walter Simmons (The Midnight Sky’s Demian Bichir), his right-hand daughter Maya (Eiza Gonzalez of Hobbs & Shaw), and second-generation scientist Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri, in his Hollywood debut), has been working on secretive countermeasures to combat future destructive havoc on mankind. Whatever Apex is doing at their Florida factory, it’s shady enough to provoke three things: a beast, a conspiracy theorist, and a mogul.
Sensing something, Godzilla makes landfall and lays waste to the entire compound, marking the first time the reptilian behemoth has attacked people instead of his fellow monsters. The long-gestating mysteries surrounding Apex have fueled the “Titan Truth Podcast” fires of paranoid former employee Bernie Hayes (Widows’ Brian Tyree Henry). One of his most loyal listeners just happens to be the returning Monarch military brat Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), still shadowing her father (Kyle Chandler) and garnering a tagalong techie friend (a wasted Julian Dennison of The Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
Accelerating his plans, Simmons enlists a failed “Hollow Earth’’ theory author named Dr. Nathan Lind (former Tarzan Alexander Skarsgard), who is the most conveniently buff, action-enabled, lowly, and intellectual stud this side of Aaron Eckhart in The Core. Speaking of that box office bomb, Simmons wants to put Lind’s subterranean theories to the test by bringing Kong from Skull Island to Antarctica where an traversable entry point to such a mystical realm may exist and contain an exploitable source of our Titans’ supernatural power. Dr. Lind sells Dr. Andrews with your typical “it’s our only chance” BS plea that becomes blindly accepted with zero merited discussion because there are special effects and toys to show off.
Speaking of Dr. Lind’s angle, upcoming Black Widow scribe Eric Pearson and MonsterVerse steward Max Borenstein (with story credits from Godzilla: King of Monsters director Michael Dougherty, Shrek’s Terry Rossio, and Krampus’ Zach Shields) earn some minor historical cool points for calling upon classical subterranean fiction evoked by the likes of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs as the mythological birthplace of the Titans. That scores a zilch for science, though, which used to be part of the backbone when Gareth Edwards started this series. The disproved “Hollow Earth” theory can be an exciting sci-fi playground if used to its fullest. Here, it’s a pit stop dalliance for both humans and monsters that gets an inexplicably sunny (think about the science for a second) tour set to an oddball Elvis Presley ditty.
If you wonder why the last five paragraphs nearly entirely stopped talking about the Godzilla vs. Kong headliners, it’s because the movie sidetracks them too often. True, we were never going to get (full air quotes) “character development” for non-speaking monsters of cinematic lore, but to waste time on all the temporary people is worse than not trying at all. All of the shallow personality quirks, flimsy character motivations, and painfully absurd side plots spill all over and push away the majority of what people are coming to see. Once again, get out of the way and “let them fight.”
When our ancient enemies do finally square off, the special effects supervised by Zack Synder regular John “DJ” DesJardin do impress with their size and dexterity. Much of their first encounter aboard ships at sea has been greatly overexposed by the trailers, which is a shame. Save for a surprise third opponent (beware of spoilers), these battle moments are fleeting peaks. Gone too are the revived Godzilla themes from composer Bear McCreary, traded for some nondescript drums from Thomas “Junkie XL” Holkenberg that do not kick any extra notches into the skyscraper-laden brawls.
Borrowing a line from Bichir’s tycoon, it seems like some Warner Bros. exec somewhere is saying “I love crazy ideas. They make me rich.” That is the path that led us to Godzilla vs. Kong is both intricate and witless in its chase for dollars. All the Highlander-level hype of “bowing to no one,” “one will fall,” and “there can’t be two alphas” in the displaced blockbuster attempts to build to what director Adam Wingard (Blair Witch, The Guest) claims to be a definitive winner. “Definitive” and “satisfying” are two different things. For a film series that has been the epitome of hot-flash diminishing returns (steep second weekend box office drops between 63–78%) and indecisive tonal flip-flopping between gravity and camp, there is little victory to claim or further springboard to launch from with this fourth film.