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Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

Whoever loses, we win.
Godzilla vs. Kong Review
Godzilla shows up to prove he’s still the alpha.

Yes, I am riffing on the tagline for the sadly ill-conceived Alien vs. Predator movie, in which “we” the audience were definitely the losers. Godzilla vs. Kong faces similar difficulties in that it features a confrontation between two iconic characters, and the trick was how to pick a winner without alienating fans of one or the other title characters. As you can already guess from the headline above, we in the audience win this time because the filmmakers figured out how to deliver the goods – and then some.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of everything you already have heard (the special effects are great, the story is terrible). Instead, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: the criticisms of the film are true; nevertheless, Godzilla vs. Kong achieves something that transcends its flaws: it’s the kind of movie that embraces its own goofiness, which gives it carte blanche to toss in anything and everything the audience wants to see without bothering to justify any of it. Godzilla is on a rampage, so we need Kong to stop him. But to do that we need to get to Hollow Earth. Kong’s home, Skull Island, has a passage to Hollow Earth (at least, it did in Kong: Skull Island) but let’s forget about that because we want to pretend we need to transport Kong to Antarctica so we have an excuse to get him on a ship so we have an excuse for that awesome fight you have all glimpsed in the trailers.

This sort of cheerful embrace of nonsense lends a giddy grace to the film that gets it over some of the more problematic plot elements, which is not to say that the flaws don’t matter but rather that we forgive them because they help get us to the stuff we want to see. Which is, of course, Godzilla fighting Kong. Which happens a lot. For extended periods of time. And it’s awesome – not totally awesome, but awesome enough.

Godzilla vs Kong Review: Down But Not Out For the Count
Godzilla vs. Kong Review
Kong puts on his game face and gets back in the ring – regardless of his chances of winning.

Now what makes Godzilla vs. Kong awesome are moments like the one in the photo above above. There is a certain kind of scene that packs a wallop regardless of whether audiences are reasonably certain their onscreen hero will survive to enjoy a happy ending; that’s the scene in which the hero does not know whether or not he will survive, and you see it on his face, but he knows he has to try anyway. Think of Alan Ladd in Shane when he sets off to confront Jack Palance’s black-hearted gunslinger: you can see it in Ladd’s eyes – he’s not sure he’s gonna win.

Something very similar happens at a crucial juncture in Godzilla vs. Kong. The King of Skull Island gets his ass handed to him by his radioactive opponent; in fact, if not for some helpful human intervention, Kong would be dead. But the thing is: the world is depending on him – particularly his young human friend Jia (Kaylee Hottle), so he has to get up and get back in the ring even though there is not one damn good reason to think he can survive, let alone win. I had not been all-in on the movie before this, but that scene eclipsed my previous doubts and convinced me the film is worth every penny it cost to buy an IMAX ticket and see it on the largest screen available. Seriously, it is a stand-up-and-cheer moment almost on par with the Bruce Willis character’s decision to go back into the pawn shop basement in Pulp Fiction.

In fact, I love that moment and what happens next so much that I can forgive a lot of stuff that otherwise left me considerably underwhelmed. My main reservation is that, unlike Legendary Entertainment’s previous two Godzilla films, the consequences of this titanic battle are not clear for most of the film. Basically, Kong and Godzilla are fighting for bragging rights as to who is the apex titan, but how will that affect the rest of the world, and why should we care? There are sort of a Team Godzilla and Team Kong in the film, but they don’t really interact, so there’s no real dramatic tension, with the monsters acting as massive externalizations of the human characters’ conflicts. (For all the vitriol hurled at Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it was pretty good at doing both of those things: showing how bad things would be if King Ghidorah became the new alpha, and making the monster fights stand in for the character conflicts.)

Godzilla vs Kong Review: Who Needs Characterization?
Why is Shun Oguri not the star of this movie?

Speaking of characters, too much ink has been figuratively spilled about how uninteresting they are. Which misses the point. A film like Godzilla vs. Kong does not need nuanced characters; it needs characters who fulfill their roles in precisely the way necessary to make the film work, and that usually requires casting actors who can fill the screen and rivet attention regardless of whether the script gives them layered backstories.

The gang at Apex Industries does this in spades. First off, the very name of the company is more or less a spoiler. The Monsterverse movies are all about who’s the Alpha – the Top Dog, so to speak – and Apex is just word for the top or highest point, so guess what they’re up to? Maybe they don’t like humans being underdogs to Titans – Godzilla, in particular?

Anways, Apex is run Walter Simmons, played by Demián Bichir, who strides through his scenes with the sort of sinister charisma that instantly lets you know he’s the villain even if he is not twirling a mustache. His every word and movement seems to say, “Who needs a great script? I’ve got this!” He also has a daughter, played by Eiza González, who is not only beautiful but also coolly efficient and just enigmatic enough that you’re not sure whether she’s totally on board with her father’s schemes until she eventually shows her true colors and gets just what she deserves – which I won’t tell you what that is, but even though she deserves, you will still cringe.

Just as good, though not nearly as well used, is Shun Oguri as Ren Serizawa (who is the son of Ken Watanabe’s character in the previous Godzilla films, though if the dialogue makes this clear, I did not hear it). Regardless of the character’s parentage and overall lack of dialogue, Oguri looks fucking awesome onscreen: he’s like manga character come to to life; all he has to do is stand there and stare at Godzilla in the distance, and you know something big is going to happen with him involved. In fact, he looks so cool that you wonder why the filmmakers weren’t smart enough to put him on screen a whole lot more. They should have just ditched some of the other characters and let him fill the time between monster fights.

On the other end of the scale, we have to acknowledge that not every actor has the power to fill a scene with sheer personal charisma. I think Kyle Chandler is a competent performer, but given little to do he makes little impression. Millie Bobbie Brown is a similar story: give her something good, and she could pull it off, but she can’t make something from nothing. Based on her previous work, I would say that Rebecca Hall is the most talented member of the cast; based on her work here, I’d say, “Who’s Rebecca Hall?” Brian Tyree Henry gives an amusing performance as the conspiracy nut who turns out to be right, but I’m not sure it’s the right performance for this movie. At least he has a little bit more going on than Alexander Skarsgård, whose character is setup as if he will undergo some kind of dramatic arc, and in fact that more or less happens but no one notices because the only character who generates any real sympathy is Kong. At least Hottle is charming as Jia, and I totally bought her relationship with the big ape.

Godzilla vs Kong Review: Living Up To Expectations?
Godzilla vs. Kong review
Kong puts the hammer down on Godzilla.

So, what else can I tell you? There is a surprise revelation, which you have probably guessed if you’ve been paying close attention. What surprised me most was that the film reveals the twist much earlier than I would have expected. What happens after that pretty much plays out as the fan-boys predicted, because we all know the best way to get two warriors to stop fighting each other is to…ahem, I’ll stop before I spoil everything.

I should perhaps say that the fight scenes are staged with a sense of physicality that seems designed to suggest massive wrestlers; in a way, this physicality apes the frantic antics the Toho’s 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla, which staged much of its action like an over-the-top sumo match, using men in monster suits which, though not realistic, provided plenty of opportunity for head buts, drop kicks, and shoulder throws. The action is more animalistic here, at least on Godzilla’s part, but it feels more physical than most CGI slugfests.

Godzilla vs. Kong includes other callbacks to Toho’s giant monster films, including the sight of Kong airlifted by helicopters as in King Kong Escapes. There’s also stuff reminiscent of Godzilla: Tokyo SOS, and borrowing from a completely different source, Kong recreates the bit that Mel Gibson did in Lethal Weapon, relocating a dislocated shoulder (nice!).

If there’s a fundamental problem with Godzilla vs. Kong that strikes at the heart of what the film wants to do (as opposed to what its critics think it should have done), it’s that the film does not work hard enough to invest us in their fight based on what we see here. The Kong-centric focus renders Godzilla as little more than a plot device for most of the runtime. He’s the MacGuffin fueling the plot, not much of a character. Consequently, that battle between the two famous monsters lacks the monumental resonance it deserves. We’re told this is an ancient rivalry played in modern times, but the mythic stature of the two characters is not so much presented as assumed. Godzilla and Kong look physically enormous, and their physical altercations are astounding, but if they loom large in our minds it’s only because we invest them with what we feel based on their previous films.

At least not until the filmmakers unleash the Kraken, so to speak, in the final reel, when everything falls into place, and the sheer goofy absurdity hits critical mass and explodes into exactly the ending we all wanted to see. It’s so wild, energetic, and even delightfully corn that any notion of “credibility” is eclipsed by the fun of sitting back and enjoying the thrills. Like its predecessor, King Kong vs. Godzilla, the new Godzilla vs. Kong cannot fully live up to the massive expectations inherent in its title, but at the end of the day, it still scores a knockout.

Also, by the way, Godzilla drills a hole all the way to the Earth’s core with his radioactive breath. How can you not love a film so completely unembarrassed about putting that on screen with a completely straight face?

Read more Godzilla vs. Kong reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.

Godzilla vs. Kong Ranking

Who's the Alpha Now?

 Godzilla vs. Kong transcends its flaws by embracing its own goofiness, which gives it carte blanche to toss in anything and everything the audience wants to see.

Since Legendary’s Monsterverse is all about who’s the Alpha, it only makes sense to rank Godzilla vs. Kong according to its pecking order among the other films. In short, Godzilla vs. Kong is the last of the three Godzilla movies and the better of the two Kong movies, so the result looks like this:

1. Godzilla
2. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
3. Godzilla vs. Kong
4. Kong: Skull Island

No doubt fans of Kong: Skull Island will disagree. They are wrong.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.