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There’s a moment, somewhere in the middle of the second major confrontation between the titanic title characters of Godzilla vs. Kong, that may correlate nicely with how fans of both series ultimately feel about this movie. The two giant creatures are busy making good on the title of director Adam Wingard’s latest installment in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, impressively brawling in a crowded city, and a blast of Godzilla’s trademark atomic breath has just put the giant ape on the ropes. The camera then cuts to an extreme close-up of Godzilla’s face … and he proceeds to put on the most absurdly and undeniably human expression I’ve ever seen plastered across the countenance of a movie kaiju. It’s a condescending smirk, delivered to a foe he sees as beneath him—the face an internet troll would make as he fires up another comment beginning with “actually…” It’s a moment of (dickish) human-like personality that seems entirely outside the American Godzilla character first established in Gareth Edwards’ moody 2014 reboot, and whether you’re willing to accept this goofball of a Godzilla in Wingard’s film is as good a test as any to gauge how you’ll feel about Godzilla vs. Kong as a whole. For better or worse, this movie is no more and no less than the title implies.
Not that we were expecting anything else, because from the very beginning this has been a very consistently presented, straightforward film. The superlative but misleading first trailer for 2019’s King of the Monsters seemed to promise a film of operatic depth, grandeur and solemnity—suffice to say, it turned out to be pretty much the opposite, being bombastic and absurd in the extreme. Godzilla vs. Kong, in contrast, never obfuscates that its primary reason for existence is to watch these two icons repeatedly smash against each other. And to get it on the record right now: Yes, this title fight does have a proper “winner,” which is the ideal outcome rather than just making the contest a draw intended to “make both look good.” Judged purely on the promises made by the title, it’s hard to see Godzilla vs. Kong as anything but a success.
As a film, on the other hand, Wingard’s G v. K often still feels like it’s held together with copious amounts of cinematic duct tape. The smirk mentioned above is memorable, and it’s 100% guaranteed to be heading as a stock .gif reaction to a Twitter conversation near you, but any time the monsters aren’t on screen this story is hamstrung by an overabundance of its paper-thin human characters. Even as the shortest of the MonsterVerse movies to date, it still manages to feel interminable at times, especially in its first half. The best thing you can say for the first 50% is that it doesn’t manage to undo the simple pleasures of watching its last third, much as it might try.
This is of course nothing new—the Legendary MonsterVerse films have often struggled with their human characters, and have developed a bad habit of killing off the only interesting ones while sparing the dullards. First it was Bryan Cranston’s paranoiac Joe Brody who was sacrificed in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, which left us with vanilla leading man Aaron Taylor-Johnson to pick up his slack. Then King of the Monsters killed off the only member of the scientist/Monarch team of real interest, Ken Watanabe’s doggedly dramatic Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, of “let them fight” fame. Both would be easier to swallow if there were other interesting humans waiting in the wings, but instead almost everyone else comes out feeling like a placeholder.
Part of this is an issue of simply too many characters for a human plot that just doesn’t require many of them, which simply dilutes them all in the process. It’s a laundry list of recognizable, talented actors: Kyle Chandler, Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Brian Tyree Henry, Demián Bichir, Eiza González, Shun Oguri, Julian Dennison and more, but there’s no time to go anywhere with any of them. All of them, for their own reasons, ultimately want to find the MacGuffin that is a new “Hollow Earth energy source” that might be used to control or defeat Godzilla, who has been on the warpath for reasons unknown. Could it have something to do with the sketchy cybernetics company we’re made to understand from the opening moments represents the very worst of human evil? Not since Robocop’s Omni Consumer Products has there been a more obviously and unabashedly evil-looking corporation.
The end result is a handful of characters you could cut from the film entirely without losing anything, like the two or three minutes that Kyle Chandler is on screen, and others such as Brian Tyree Henry’s Bernie Hayes, who are kneecapped before they get a chance to turn into something interesting. A citizen journalist/conspiracy theorist podcaster, Bernie might have represented a novel way of approaching the current cultural climate of distrust toward “mass media,” and the way that conspiracies such as QAnon take advantage of those who like the idea of being privy to “secret information,” but instead his paranoia is played as a one-note, character-defining gag. He does, however, manage the film’s one genuinely funny line that is likely to get a laugh from a crowded movie theater.
The insubstantial nature of these humans puts the burden of the audience’s empathy entirely on the monsters, and it actually sort of works with King Kong. Here is the film’s true protagonist—a giant ape who seems to be the very last of his kind, consumed by a deep loneliness and ennui that only a young deaf girl named Jia is able to reach. There is no moral gray area in how the film approaches Kong—he’s a big, furry white knight for humanity, eager to strike up a battle with what the film assures us is his “ancient enemy,” Godzilla. The human characters want to use Kong to lead them to that aforementioned, seemingly magical energy source in the “Hollow Earth,” and it’s implied that Kong needs their help as well, if he’s going to stand a chance against Big G. His station as the underdog in this fight is clear: He is the Rocky to Godzilla’s Apollo Creed.
Godzilla, on the other hand, receives no particular new detailing in this film, and it feels like writers Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein are relying on the familiarity that already exists with this iteration of the character to fill in for any additional character building. That can mean this Godzilla feels a bit hollow and minimized at times—in terms of “star power” and screen time the film has perhaps a 70-30 split in favor of Kong, who the screenwriters may have felt needed more attention if we were really going to get in his corner.
Of course, the average theater-goer may very well take note of none of this, being in attendance exclusively to see Godzilla and Kong go toe to toe. And on that front, I can say without reservation that the film delivers. The first encounter between the pair, astride a definitely-would-be-sinking aircraft carrier, sets up an unlikely battleground for an amusing scuffle, but the second fight between Godzilla and Kong is the sort of gloriously stupid, knock-down, drag-out combat that would make Michael Bay proud. Heads get smashed through buildings. Judo flips send monsters flying through the air. Countless roars are exchanged. It’s like two monster acting out the fight scene from They Live, and it’s what you’ve no doubt paid to see.
With that said, the action is very light and very loose in tone throughout—it never attempts to be half as dramatic or portentous as the confrontations in King of the Monsters, and the full daylight battle at the end has more of a Japanese tokusatsu feel, like a big-budget Ultraman or Power Rangers movie. If you thought the fights of King of the Monsters were too dark, too shaky or too obstructed, and craved a more streamlined and conventional slugfest, this one certainly gives it to you. It’s undeniably in the “turn your brain off and enjoy” camp.
If the early international grosses are to be believed, then Godzilla vs. Kong will smash all in its path, en route to becoming the first genuine blockbuster opening since the pandemic first shut down American theaters in March of 2020. It will also be the first star-making opportunity for director Wingard, best known to genre geeks for humorously brutal indie horror flicks like You’re Next and The Guest, along with the instantly forgettable Blair Witch remake in 2016. There seems to be little, however, of his own personal style or touch on display here—it feels much more like a case of a man who was brought in and told to make a couple of iconic monsters satisfyingly clash. And that he does, just barely often enough, though we hope the man who made 2014’s The Guest will someday get to truly ply that talent for suspense once again.
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Bryan Tyree Henry, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Demien Bichir, Julian Dennison, Eiza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri
Release date: March 31, 2021
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.