'Godzilla vs. Kong': Film Review

'Godzilla vs. Kong'
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

'Godzilla vs. Kong'

Celebrity Deathmatch.
3/31/2021

Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall and Brian Tyree Henry head the cast in this epic smackdown between two monster-movie legends, both of them also facing a man-made threat.

The cast of Godzilla vs. Kong shows commendable inclusivity for a major studio movie. But pity the talented actors who had to spend the majority of their time standing around gawping at green screens, either in stunned silence or mouthing countless variations on "Oh, my God" shock and awe. Despite an undernourished thread connecting key characters by their experience of loss, seldom have the human figures and their interplay been as peripheral to the headline action in a popcorn blockbuster. The good news is that even if the convoluted kaiju mythology tends to trip over itself in a plot that only barely makes sense, the Monsterverse face-off delivers plenty of visceral excitement.

After a year of big-screen deprivation, watching the Warner Bros. release in IMAX with gut-churning surround-sound is its own substantial thrill. Whether genre fans catch this in theaters or on home screens during the monthlong simultaneous HBO Max debut, it's an enjoyable assault. Grosses from international territories that opened ahead of the U.S. suggest it's going to be, well, a monster.

The predominance of CG spectacle over physical action has even more supremacy here than in its direct predecessors, Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. And the dizzying speed of the mayhem can sometimes seem like sleight of hand to cover for a shortfall in character development and logic. But screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein are smart enough to know what the customers want, stringing together the brawling set-pieces with a minimum of delay between each new round of destruction.

That said, there's a lovely new addition to the story's human element in the form of Jia, played by Kaylee Hottle in a captivating screen debut. A deaf, orphaned indigenous Iwi girl rescued on Skull Island by Kong, Jia is being raised by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), an anthropological linguist working for U.S. government monster research organization Monarch. The child's ability to communicate with the giant ape via sign language generates poignant moments throughout, even if the glycerin tears are sometimes laid on a bit thick.

That connection — not the traditional one between Kong and a beautiful woman, but rather with an innocent child — supplies some heart, amplified by the enchanting expressiveness of the ape's facial features. CG advancements make this arguably the big guy's best performance to date.

It's in this area, too, that the title's showdown stacks the deck in favor of the gorilla granddaddy, with his gray-flecked fur and aura of gruff cuddliness even if he spends much of the time in a chest-thumping rage. The very first glimpses of Kong — waking up from a nap with a yawn, a stretch, and a lazy scratch of his butt on the way to a waterfall shower, accompanied by the sweet doo wop sounds of Bobby Vinton singing "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea" — humanize the beast in ways that Godzilla is never afforded.

The prehistoric reptile has rarely seemed meaner, its beady-eyed glare and vicious snarl signaling a path of marauding destruction. The pinhead, pear-shaped figure and tiny hands perhaps inevitably mean Zilla will always be runner-up in both the beauty and personality portions of the pageant.

The film's humor comes primarily from another new character, this one on the Godzilla side of the action in two storylines that never fully intersect, at least not beyond the smackdown of the warring monsters. Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) is a wisecracking low-level engineer at cybernetics corporation Apex. A whistleblowing conspiracy theorist, Bernie hosts a podcast eagerly followed by teenager Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown). She and her more marginally featured father Mark (Kyle Chandler), now deputy director of special projects at Monarch, are holdovers from Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Unscrupulous Apex CEO Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) and his chief technical officer Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri) — whose father, played by Ken Watanabe, died in the previous film — have been conducting secret experiments that reawaken Godzilla three years after the creature was last seen, drawing the monster to the company's U.S. base in Pensacola, Florida.

The resulting chaos leaves eight dead and the industrial site in wreckage. But Madison believes Godzilla — a hero to humanity in the last go-round — was provoked by unseen forces. She teams up with her nerdy schoolmate Josh (Julian Dennison, the delightful discovery from Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to track down Bernie. More by accident than design, the three of them travel to Apex's maze of laboratories in Hong Kong.

It's fun to see Bichir channel his considerable charisma into a nefarious character, a silver-tongued powerbroker with a seductive smile, a sharp wardrobe and a glass of good scotch permanently clamped in a hand dripping with chunky silver bling. In order to activate their big project, Simmons and Serizawa need to harness a massive power source capable of measuring up to the gargantuan creatures known as the Titans. They believe this energy can be found in Hollow Earth, a whole primeval world hidden at the core of the planet where the monsters originated.

There's a lot of plot, a lot of characters and a lot of different locations to keep straight in the establishing sections, and while director Adam Wingard and his writers don't exactly achieve maximum lucidity, it's easy enough just to go along for the ride until the eponymous stars start to rumble.

That happens soon after discredited geologist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is enlisted by Apex to find Hollow Earth, teaming up with Hall's "Kong whisperer" Ilene and using the ape to guide them there, transported by water on an enormous aircraft carrier headed for Antarctica. Simmons sends along his hardboiled daughter Maia (Eiza González) to sneer at the good guys and ensure that dad's interests are served.

The first clash between Kong and Godzilla takes place on the Tasman Sea, including a brief Poseidon Adventure moment when the entire boat is flipped in the fight. Even if you're growing numb to all the geek-speak exposition dumps and garbled mythology, there's genuine exhilaration in watching Godzilla take out fighter planes and support vessels with a flick of his tail, and Kong sock the reptile in the jaw with fists like boulders.

Cinematographer Ben Seresin tracks the action with whiplash-inducing movement, both on deck and underwater, in a sequence that quickens the movie's pulse and sets the pace for the remainder. There's relatively little downtime after that, which will be disappointing for anyone requiring more character depth, but not so much for audiences weaned on videogame plotting.

Wingard, whose background is in low-budget horror, obviously gets off on the sci-fi fantasy action-adventure tradition of Journey to the Center of the Earth once Dr. Lind's expedition reaches Antarctica and Kong finds his way from there to Hollow Earth. Sequences showing the ape swinging along the roof of underground tunnels and chambers are visually stunning. The impressive blending of locations with CG elements makes the destination quite cool, even if there's a certain eye-rolling plot overload in the discovery of a vast Jurassic World-type environment with amazing WiFi for a spot thousands of miles beneath the Earth's surface.

But if you can swallow that, then you won't have a problem with Godzilla using his radioactive fire breath to blast a hole from Hong Kong to Hollow Earth to challenge his old alpha predator foe. The climactic action shifts back to the Chinese port city, which has been largely evacuated to keep the casualties mostly structural rather than human. And the monster mash gets a shakeup when the rivalrous title creatures once again find themselves fighting on the same side to defeat a greater danger to humanity.

That threat will be a welcome reacquaintance for fans of the vintage Toho Godzilla series, though many will have guessed what's coming from trailer glimpses and new merchandise released by Legendary Pictures. There's also a nod to the possible endurance of Monster Zero, the three-headed Ghidorah featured in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which might point to its re-emergence in a future sequel. Mercifully, however, there's less of the busy, more-is-more monster-palooza attitude toward the Titans this time.

The action thunders along in big, boisterous fashion, goosed by the dynamic synth score of Tom Holkenborg, who records as Junkie XL. With the exception of the roles played by bad-boy Bichir, the consistently amusing Henry and newcomer Hottle, who comes from an all-Deaf family, the underwritten human characters tend to fade into the background. But the draw is the heavyweight bout of the title, so few will be complaining.

In the sometimes laborious franchise-crossover tradition of Moneymaker 1 vs. Moneymaker 2 — think Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, and ugh, Batman v SupermanGodzilla vs. Kong is a worthy enough match, and definitely a giant leap forward from their first battle, in the 1963 Toho production. If only it had the wit of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Distribution: Warner Bros., HBO Max
Cast:
Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle, Lance Reddick, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Ronny Chieng
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein; story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, based on the character “Godzilla,” owned and created by Toho
Producers: Mary Parent, Alex Garcia, Eric McLeod, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull, Brian Rogers
Executive producers: Jay Ashenfelter, Herbert W. Gains, Dan Lin, Roy Lee, Yoshimitsu Banno, Kenji Okuhira
Director of photography: Ben Seresin

Production designers: Owen Paterson, Thomas S. Hammock
Costume designer: Ann Foley
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Editor: Josh Schaeffer
Sound designers: Jason W. Jennings, Brandon Jones
Visual effects supervisor: John “DJ” DesJardin

Casting: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG-13, 113 minutes