Monster movies often ride or die by their over-the-top action. One can be willing to forgive failures elsewhere—many of them, even—as long as the bits where the monsters punch the bejesus out of each other are satisfying. But Godzilla vs Kong has a problem: its titanic action heights just come too rarely to justify an absolute slog of a movie.
Set three years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla vs Kong—directed by Death Note’s Adam Wingard—sees a world that has been rapidly changed by the devastation of Godzilla’s battle with Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. The monster-tracking scientific organization from the past movies, Monarch, has moved to monitor status in a time of relative peace but a shady new cybernetics company named Apex (lead by Demián Bichir’s Walter Simmons) has risen to prominence while trying to stop the potential return of Titan threats. But when Godzilla re-emerges to attack Apex facilities, a race against time emerges.
Young Madison Russell (returning Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown) seeks to clear Godzilla’s name and uncover Apex’s secrets. Meanwhile, a pair of scientists—shunned “Hollow Earth” theorist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) and Kong researcher Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall)—are tasked by Apex to use the massive ape to track a mysterious energy source hidden in the Hollow Earth beneath the world’s surface. But two alpha Titans can’t co-exist without a battle for dominance ensuing, and Godzilla detects Kong’s emergence from Monarch monitoring, and goes on the hunt to defend his title once and for all.
If there is a saving grace to Godzilla vs Kong it’s that, when the titular conflict erupts over the course of the film, it is an absolute delight to watch. Few punches (or bites, or tail thwacks, or radiation blasts, or radiation-blast-deflecting ax slashes...) are pulled, and largely removed from the human world around them, Kong and Godzilla’s scraps are as brutal as they are beautiful to watch unfold. No matter which side of the showdown you’re rooting for, each titan gets multiple moments to show what badasses they can be unchained from having to particularly care about the environments around them.
In the run-up to release, Wingard teased a definitive “winner” to the titular conflict, and while not everyone will necessarily be satisfied as to how that’s defined in the movie—people who’ve been following along with the trailers are no doubt aware at this point of another threat lurking in the shadows for our titular heroes to overcome. Thankfully, when Godzilla vs Kong lets loose, it lets loose, delivering some wild, weighty action in the process. And maybe that’s enough. Though if there were more battles—there’s arguably just three major action sequences between the titular monsters in the film—it would have been preferable.
After all, the direct “Monsterverse” predecessor, 2019's King of the Monsters was—in spite of what the trailers tried to sell it as—a movie where some very dumb humans occasionally interrupted a bonkers kaiju battle royal. But at least the human cast of KOTM felt like they were along for a very silly, energetic ride, swept up in the perpetual motion of the action as they raced across the world to watch Godzilla and his frenemies beat the snot out of each other. There’s no equivalent to Bradley Whitford making an “Oh my godzilla” gag in Godzilla vs. Kong, no knowing absurdity that at least made the silliness a fun lull between the action beats. Here, the human plots are a bizarre mix of self-serious and ridiculous (in a clunky way rather than a fun one), whether they’re asking you to defy leaps of logic with little in the way of reasoning for doing so, or just feeling like they’re here to slam the brakes down on the forward momentum of the film.
Which is a problem when the human plots not only dominate so much of Godzilla vs. Kong but they dominate each other to make the film feel like an incoherent mess, even with a brisk, just-under-two-hour runtime. There are three primary human plotlines in the film—Doctors Andrews and Lind working to use Kong as a guide to the Hollow Earth for a powerful energy source, Madison, her schoolfriend (Deadpool 2's breakout Julian Dennison), and a conspiracy theorist podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry, the only person really trying to make the most out of the cheese-fest material he’s given) uncovering the villainy behind Apex Cybernetics, and then...Kyle Chandler, returning as King of the Monsters’ Mark Russell standing around listless in what is thankfully the briefest distraction of the three.
On their own, one of these arcs might have helped serve as an effective spine for the movie, which would’ve helped focus the film, but these three separate arcs get in the way of each other and the action you’re here for. And they are indeed separate. There is no crossover between any of the human narratives outside of the bare minimum between Mark and Madison to open and close the film, and they operate so independently of each other you’ll often find yourself wondering what the point of any of them happening in conjunction with each other is. Combined with the dominance each of these arcs has in the film’s narrative, they not only rob you of more time with Godzilla and Kong, but they also rob each other of the space they’d need to be fleshed out in ways that could’ve made them any less of a snoozefest.
And that, really, is Godzilla vs Kong’s fatal problem: there are four movies going on at once, and the one you want to see most is the one most drowned out by the others. When it isn’t, at least, it serves up some satisfyingly visceral action between its titular titans, but the hits come so few and far between to justify slogging through the rest of it. A small benefit then perhaps, that the movie joins the rest of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate in premiering on HBO Max simultaneously—at least there, you can skip to the action scenes and enjoy them baggage free.
Godzilla vs. Kong hits theaters and begins streaming on HBO Max in the U.S. on March 31.
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