I watched Godzilla Vs. Kong last night, trying to stay awake and finish the whole thing before my seven-hour screener window ran out at midnight, and now I’m struggling to remember it well enough to articulate a coherent take in time to meet my review deadline. It was a movie about monsters fighting, and the monsters definitely fought. The story was preposterous but the action mostly enjoyable, and it was reasonably entertaining throughout. But I can’t shake the feeling that this movie was meant to be watched four or five beers deep on a massive theater screen with a group of like-minded hooting morons, not alone in my bedroom with my email address superimposed over the left side of the screen and a thumb poised over the volume bar to keep from waking my family. Context, folks. It matters.
Godzilla Vs. Kong combines the irresistible kitsch of giant monsters fighting with the benumbing effect of massive budget IP maintenance. It’s about a giant ape who came from the center of the hollow Earth and knows sign language, which is great, but also about a movie studio frantically trying to name-check every famous monster and monster movie from the golden age of monster movies it owns the rights to before the time runs out — which is grating, needy, and above all, neither my problem nor concern as a moviegoer. There are parts of the script that feel like they were written by the lawyers. Also, couldn’t you just have a mecha Godzilla in the movie without a character saying “that’s mecha Godzilla?” And yet, what do we even expect at this point? Surely Godzilla Vs. Kong falls on the higher end of our beaten-down expectations for movies like this.
The original Gojira, from 1954, was a pointed, anti-nuclear testing allegory starring a monster awakened by testing who breathes irradiated fire, directly referencing then-current nuclear accidents. By the time the American version came out in 1956, that theme was already softened and de-fanged, and now Godzilla mostly just plays on the public’s desire to see big monsters smash shit. Godzilla Vs. Kong is now part of, and in some ways the culmination of, Legendary’s “Monsterverse,” a collection of intellectual properties (IP) Legendary (now a subsidiary of China’s Wanda Group) acquired and produces in conjunction with Warner Bros. To make a long story short, it’s a lot of things that don’t have much to do with movies for a movie to have to be.
Obviously, we’re not going to judge Godzilla Vs. Kong on whether it honors Godzilla’s legacy as an anti-nuclear parable. Instead, there’s a vaguely antiwar theme and a plot that turns on the hubris of man (as personified by the chief of Apex Cybernetics played by Demian Bichir). It’s all generic enough not to offend a multi-national collection of financiers. And again, what else could we expect?
The film, directed by Adam Wingard of indie-horror fame (The Guest, V/H/S/, You’re Next) kicks off when Godzilla breaks his legendary silence long enough to lay waste to an Apex Cybernetics facility. The great Brian Tyree Henry from Atlanta plays Bernie, a conspiracy podcaster who suspects Apex provoked this attack somehow, while Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things plays Bernie’s young acolyte, Madison, who’s also the daughter of some high-up military functionary played by Kyle Chandler. Together, along with Madison’s friend played by Julian Dennison (Ricky Baker from Hunt For The Wilderpeople), they go off in search of dirt on Apex and the root cause of the Godzilla attack. Arguably the most impressive thing about Godzilla Vs. Kong is this wide-ranging and inspired cast.
MEANWHILE, Kong is being contained in a Truman Show-style augmented reality environment maintained by a company called Monarch, where he is cared for and studied by the Jane Goodall of giant apes, Ilene Andrews, played by Rebecca Hall. She converses in sign language with her adopted deaf daughter, Jia, the last of the tribe where Kong originally lived. Jia has a special connection with Kong, because, as we all know, gorillas love sign language.
MEANWHILE-MEANWHILE, there’s Nathan Lind, played by Alexander Skarsgård (Skarsgårdzilla!), a crackpot scientist advocating a Hollow Earth theory explaining where these “Titans” come from. When Godzilla strikes, Lind hooks up with Andrews and some other rich defense contractor lady not worth mentioning to try to take Kong to a hollow Earth tunnel in the hopes that his natural titan instincts will guide him, and in the process lead Lind’s team, to the hollow Earth’s energy source — THUS GIVING THEM A WEAPON POWERFUL ENOUGH TO STOP THE RAGING GODZILLA!
Phew, I’m already tired of explaining and I’m not even a third of the way through the premise. But you get the picture. The monsters fight, the defense contractors do evil things, and the crackpots turn out to be right. One thing Legendary and Warner Bros have been great at is hiring directors who at least can visualize entertaining monster fights, and even when Godzilla Vs. Kong gets bogged down in the soul-sucking enterprise of IP name-checking, there’s always the antidote of an underwater lizard-gorilla fight just around the corner. Could they have gone for it even more? Sure, I would’ve loved to watch Kong do rear-naked chokes on Godzilla while his indigenous best friend corner woman gave him advice from a helicopter. But a movie with this many financiers to satisfy is inevitably going to have its goofiest, most enjoyable edges sanded off. Still, even if it’s not quite gloriously dumb, it’s dumb enough.
Godzilla Vs. Kong is entertainingly preposterous, but also overstuffed with plots that seem designed to involve an entire sub-universe of past and future monsters. Ah yes, the expanded fucking universe, what would blockbusters be without it these days? They’d probably just be movies. All the left-field name checks are enervating, seemingly designed to satisfy legal requirements more than narrative ones. Yet “Godzilla Vs.” is a concept built on excess, and as long as it doesn’t bore you too much, you can forgive it.