In 1933, a giant ape was discovered on a mysterious island, brought to New York, and wreaked havoc on the city before falling from the top of the Empire State Building — distracted by his love for a beautiful blonde. In 1954, an ancient monster was awakened by nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean and used his newfound radioactive powers to attack Tokyo — a heady metaphor for atomic destruction. Both creatures captured audience imaginations instantly and spawned numerous sequels, some better than others but all providing some form of satisfaction for our primal desire to watch fantastic beasts engage in large-scale destruction.
In 1962, these two icons met on screen for the first time in King Kong vs. Godzilla, a film that combines a sharp, silly satire of Japanese television with the sheer bliss of watching two gigantic monsters beat the living daylights out of each other to create nothing less than movie magic. Indeed, the masterful way in which King Kong vs. Godzilla mixes human comedy with monster mayhem makes it one of my favorites in the long-running Godzilla franchise, an example of everything these movies can be at their no-holds-barred best: a whole lot of fun.
Nearly 60 years later, Godzilla and Kong have been reunited onscreen in the much-anticipated fourth installment of what Legendary Entertainment calls their MonsterVerse, which began in 2014 with the reboot of Godzilla and was followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019. Directed by Adam Wingard (best known for indie horror flicks like You’re Next and The Guest), Godzilla vs. Kong follows a group of scientists who decide to lure Kong to the ancestral home of the Titans in order to find an energy source that might help stop a recent bout of seemingly random rampages from Godzilla. Naturally, these ancient foes are bound to collide and destroy a lot of high-priced real estate in the process.
It’s the battle we’ve all been waiting for, and for the most part, it delivers on the promise of some good old-fashioned smash and grab entertainment. Yet while Godzilla vs. Kong is by far the best installment of this rebooted franchise, the MonsterVerse could still learn a few lessons from some of its Shōwa era forerunners: mainly, how to write human characters that we don’t resent every moment they’re on screen.
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Titans
In the decades that have passed since he was found on Skull Island, Kong has been living within a giant dome where he is monitored by scientists from Monarch, the shady organization that functions as the throughline for the MonsterVerse. Meanwhile, a new shady organization called Apex Cybernetics, run by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), has been working on its own solution to what it calls the “Titan problem”. A former Apex employee, Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) has started a podcast devoted to his conspiracy theories about what’s really going on at the company, but when Bernie attempts to sneak back into the Apex facility in Florida to find evidence to back up his claims, Godzilla abruptly attacks it.
Simmons’ plans for Apex include traveling to the ancestral home of the Titans, Hollow Earth, to uncover an energy source that may help them understand Godzilla’s recent mood swings… among other things. He recruits a Hollow Earth theorist, Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), to lead the expedition, and Nathan convinces Monarch’s resident Kong expert, Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), to let them borrow Kong as a guide. Accompanied by Ilene’s adopted daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf girl native to Skull Island who communicates with Kong via sign language, the group sets out for Hollow Earth via Antarctica.
Meanwhile, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), who we last saw witnessing the destruction of King Ghidorah and the worst stadium in Major League Baseball in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, wants to find out the truth behind Godzilla’s increasingly unpredictable behavior. Accompanied by Josh (Julian Dennison), her awkward partner in crime, and Bernie, whose podcast Madison is a big fan of, Madison begins her own investigation of the goings-on at Apex and the reasons why Godzilla might have felt compelled to attack the facility.
Yes, it might sound like a lot of nonsense, but don’t worry, Godzilla vs. Kong breaks up the scientific mumbo-jumbo with plenty of what we all came to see: scenes of the two Titans engaging in epic destruction. Godzilla’s attack on the Apex facility comes within the first ten minutes of the movie, and one doesn’t have to wait too long for his first clash with Kong, either. In comparison with the 2014 reboot of Godzilla, which kept the titular monster predominantly hidden for most of its running time before the climactic battle with the MUTOs, the decision on the part of the filmmakers to not hold back on the carnage is an extremely welcome one.
Those fight scenes are not only frequent, but they’re also fabulous, predominantly taking place during the bright light of day so we can enjoy seeing these two legendary monsters in their full glory instead of masking them in the murk of darkness. (Pacific Rim, I love you, but I’m talking to you.) A climactic brawl in the streets of Hong Kong is saturated with neon colors and bright lights, with all of the vibrant pinks and yellows and purples providing illumination that is pure cinematic eye candy — it might rot your teeth and/or brain, but it sure provides a sugar rush at the moment.
The choreography of the battles contains an underlying sense of humor that is refreshing in an era of gritty Hollywood blockbusters that take themselves very seriously; Kong ripping the head off of a Hollow Earth monster and then using its head as a goblet to drink its vibrant green blood, much to the disgust of the human onlookers, pretty much epitomizes Godzilla vs. Kong’s approach. In moments like this, it has much more in common with the earlier Godzilla eras than it does its predecessors in the MonsterVerse, even if the visual effects are miles beyond the much-beloved rubber suits of the Shōwa era. From Godzilla’s savage toothy grin to Kong’s anxious furrowed brow, the team led by visual effects supervisor John “D.J.” DesJardin does a remarkable job in giving these monsters a great deal of personality.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the human characters in Godzilla vs. Kong. Despite recruiting an all-star ensemble of talented (and outrageously attractive) actors, including Shun Oguri as Ren Serizawa, the son of the character played by Ken Watanabe in the previous two Godzilla movies, and Eiza Gonzalez as Maya Simmons, a high-ranking executive at Apex, every moment of human drama in Godzilla vs. Kong falls flatter than Kong on the receiving end of Godzilla’s atomic breath. There are just too many characters and not enough reasons for the audience to care about what happens to them. In particular, the subplot involving Madison and her conspiracy theory-loving friends constantly feels like a distraction from the main action; even when they do finally make a massive discovery, one just wishes they’d go away and leave the monsters be. To quote Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa: “Let them fight.”
Some people have argued that these movies don’t need human characters at all; we’re only there for the monster fights, right? But in my opinion, the human characters are the ones that can make or break a movie like this. The night before I watched Godzilla vs. Kong, I rewatched one of my favorite Shōwa era Godzilla movies, Invasion of Astro-Monster, to whet my appetite for the action to come. What struck me about that film—and many of the other early Godzilla films from the 1950s and 1960s—is that I actually cared about the human characters, even when the monsters weren’t on screen.
The main ensemble of Invasion of Astro-Monster includes two astronauts sent to outer space to investigate a new planet, the sister of one of the astronauts, who works for the film’s World Space Agency, and her boyfriend, a hapless inventor who is desperate to sell an annoying safety alarm for women and prove himself worthy of marrying his love. This quartet of characters, all of whom have personal connections prior to getting tangled with Godzilla and his frenemies, have just enough backstory for us to feel like we know them and personality quirks that ensure that they stand out from the sea of faces in the background of the film. In Godzilla vs. Kong, we’re given a sea of characters, most of whom have never met prior to being brought together by their adventures with the titular monsters. They have no reason to be attached to each other, and we have no reason to be attached to them — and that’s by far the most disappointing thing about Godzilla vs. Kong. Yes, even more so than the lack of Mothra.
Even if every human character only exists to further the plot along so the two monsters can find themselves in the same place at the same time, Godzilla vs. Kong provides solid entertainment for the kaiju-lovers among us. But, if you were looking for some kind of monster masterpiece, this ain’t it.
What do you think? What is your favorite movie starring Godzilla or Kong? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Godzilla vs. Kongis currently in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. You can find more international release dates here.
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