'Godzilla vs. Kong' Delivers the Movie Monster Brawl of the Century
The big kaiju battle is playing in theaters and on HBO Max now.
There is a moment in Godzilla vs. Kong, during the second bare-knuckled fight between the fire-breathing titan and the giant ape of the title, when Godzilla straightens up after delivering a knockout blow, frames his huge head in the center of the camera, the edges of his mouth curling upward, and laughs. It could be mistaken for a growl. It's very growl-like. But it's a laugh. That's basically where we're at with the MonsterVerse, the slowly expanding movie franchise that Warner Bros. launched in 2014 with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla to reintroduce the famous gigantic lizard and other huge creatures known as kaiju to modern audiences. That critical hit film and a less beloved sequel, 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, have already pitted the titan against giant insects, a giant pteranodon, a giant moth, and a giant three-headed dragon from outer space, but that's all small potatoes compared to one very, very big gorilla.
Godzilla and King Kong are, without a doubt, the most internationally famous of the great monsters of classic cinema, and this battle royale has been teased pretty much since the beginning of Warner Bros.' Monsterverse, and definitely at the end of the franchise's fourth entry, 2017's Kong: Skull Island. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that, yes, Godzilla and Kong finally fight each other in this movie, and the fights (there are three) are pretty great. The main problem with the movie is that it's a movie, and not simply a collection of X vs. Y scenes, which means that a decent amount of plot and setup and character drama about the humans in their path is required to make the entire experience worthwhile.
When our two leads are introduced—and the movie does, at least, understand that Godzilla and Kong are its main characters—things aren't going well for them. The otherwise peaceful Godzilla has emerged from the ocean and is terrorizing cities for no apparent reason, while Kong is a prisoner on his own island, watched over by Monarch, the kaiju-monitoring organization that's been present throughout the franchise. Kong communicates through sign language with Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her deaf adopted Iwi daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), with whom Kong has formed a bond. When a company called Apex Cybernetics claims to have a way to subdue the rampaging Godzilla, Dr. Andrews is convinced by fellow Monarch geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to journey with Kong into the Hollow Earth (!!!) to find a power source capable of running whatever Apex is building. (I won't spoil what that turns out to be, but if you're a fan of the franchise, you probably know where this is going.)
Meanwhile, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the daughter of Monarch director Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler, who spends his few scenes of the movie answering phones) and one of the few holdovers from the previous movie, teams up with her friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) as well as Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a former Apex employee turned podcasting conspiracy theorist, to infiltrate the Apex facility to find out what they're making and why Godzilla seems so hell-bent on destroying it.
For a movie that is impressively shorter than two hours and for a franchise that's been obsessively setting itself up for years as an interconnected universe, there's tons of background and setup of new concepts and characters to get through within the first 20 or so minutes of the movie. Director Adam Wingard is economical about it to the point where characters just say lines about how the Earth is actually hollow on the inside and how they'll travel around it using antigravity cars (reminiscent of the delightful mid-budget sci-fi action movies Hollywood simply doesn't make anymore) and all the audience can do is accept that before the film moves forward with the next scene. There are way too many human characters, which is maybe inevitable when you have two (and, eventually, three) camps meeting on the battlefield for the first time.
And the battlefield is what this movie is about and where it shines. I watched this at home, but I can imagine the hoots and hollers from fans who head to the theater mainly to see two hilariously big monsters whale on each other, which is basically the point of the whole movie. The plot feels very secondary to the big action setpieces, because it is. There are rarely any moments of rest and reflection before something explodes or something else smashes a skyscraper into dust. Andrews and little Jia convince Kong to go make the journey to the center of the Earth by telling him more of his species might be down there, but they never really get the time to examine the implications of lying in this way, since all the movie is really focused on is two big things fighting each other. That's fine, but that means that Godzilla vs. Kong is always destined to be, at best, a fun spectacle, rather than a great movie.
When it's fun, it's fun! There's a Tide Pods joke! The fights ditch the CGI-safe nighttime setting for more daring setpieces in the ocean during the middle of the day, and a Pacific Rim-style neon-soaked city just before dawn. (On a side note, it's very funny that when two ancient titans who have hated each other for millennia finally meet face-to-face, the fight consists mostly of punching.) It doesn't have the overly dreary tone of Kong: Skull Island, or the too-muchness of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but there's a definite sense of something missing, a smaller, quieter, more human element to give this spectacle a sense of scale. But neither Godzilla nor Kong is interested in giving us a break, and who can blame them? There's no time to catch your breath with a giant lizard breathing atomic fire down your neck.