Let’s get a few things out of the way before we dive into “Godzilla vs Kong.” First and foremost, I am not a fan of the genre overall. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good monster movie, but neither Godzilla or King Kong do anything for me in general when it comes to overall cinema fan faire. I get that this puts me in the minority of moviegoers, but it needs to be said as the basis for this entire review is predicated on my ambivalence towards any and all previous outings.
Second, if you must see “Godzilla vs Kong” and feel safe enough to venture out beyond the comfort of your living room, see this thing in the theaters.
I don’t necessarily advocate for placing yourself in danger for the sake of film, and I support any and all COVID-19 protocols, but if you are safe, healthy, vaccinated or in a place where theaters are open, “Godzilla vs Kong” screams big screen. Something is lost in translation inside the small confined and all too familiar home setting, and I don’t think I’ve felt that way about any movie I’ve seen this year. I still support WB’s decision to release things on HBO Max, but the whole time I just couldn’t help but think how much better of an experience this film would be in theater.
Lastly, I want to make it clear that I genuinely enjoyed “Godzilla vs Kong.” It wasn’t high on my list of movies to watch, and was more of an assignment than a must see, but I generally had a good time. It’s well balanced (as much as something about giant monsters could be), has some solid action, and while it’s basically a shot for shot remake of “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” with some “Journey to the Center of Earth” sprinkled in, it does both well and better.
There’s no spoiler here, either. Anyone that thinks “Godzilla vs Kong” ends with one of them being the villain and one of them the true hero clearly doesn’t understand how these things work. They were always going to have their “Must…save….Martha” moment, but luckily that’s handled really well and isn’t nearly as stupid. Will I watch it again? Probably not by choice. But since this review is more of an analysis than a direct break down of the film, I want it to be clear up top that “Godzilla vs Kong” is a solid entry into the franchise, and is a much better entry than previous attempts thus far.
I believe that it succeeds because of one glaring issue it corrects almost entirely, and that is the very human problem of “Godzilla” (2014), “Godzilla: King of Monsters” (2019), and to a lesser extent “Kong: Skull Island” (2017). Make no mistake, “Godzilla vs Kong” still has more humans than I believe are necessary, so it doesn’t completely fix this issue, but it ALMOST does. This makes for a much better experience.
Let’s start by taking a look at this problem as it exists in previous films. 2014’s “Godzilla” was touted as the much needed apology after the disastrous 1998 version. Gareth Edwards (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) at the helm and star studded cast made sure that it had a good director with a keen eye for action and recognizable faces that could draw audiences even if Godzilla didn’t. The problem was two fold: Edwards seemed to care far more about the human entry points to the story and the human characters were by far the least interesting part of the entire film. Sure, it looked cool, but it was all style of substance with very little Godzilla way too much showcasing of their cast list. “Godzilla” was for all intents and purposes pretty boring; a highly stylized monster film with very little monsters and an overload of people we don’t care about.
In 2017, “Kong: Skull Island” manage to commit some of the same mistakes but was saved by the human characters being slightly more compelling and interesting overall. Plus, they were surrounded by more than one monster, allowing Jordan Vogrt-Roberts (“You’re The Worst“) to explore an island of mythical creatures rather than zero in on one that occasionally emerges from the sea. However, the balance was still off, option to focus on the survival of our would be heroes rather than Kong and his world. It’s there, but we’re asked to care more about Tom Hiddleson and crew than we are about Kong himself. “Kong: Skull Island” also wants to be more important than it is, never fully embracing the ridiculousness of its premise and constantly trying to force in commentary about The Vietnam War and geopolitical ideology, at times taking itself way too seriously as it’s juxtapose against a giant ape fighting a giant octopus and slurping down its tentacles. This one barely skirts by, giving us just enough Kong to be a serviceable film. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good.
Somehow missing the mark complete, “Godzilla: King of Monsters” decides to double down on the one thing that has plagued its previous films and is arguably its biggest offender. This one dials up the human problem to 11, forcing viewers to care about everything from shifting allegiances, divorce, work life balance in relationships, and a lot of people standing around waiting for something to happen until someone makes a dumb, Godzilla pun. Even with Godzilla, Mothra, and Ghidorah, the film is so focused on new and returning human characters that they feel like side characters in their own movie. A movie with this many monsters in it should not be this boring. “Godzilla: King of Monsters” seemed learn zero lessons from the mistakes of the past, turning in a mess of a story from its human characters that no amount of action can make interesting.
By contrast, “Godzilla vs Kong” seems to almost strike just the right balance between the two. Here, more than any other film in the monster universe, the humans are entry points to our true heroes as opposed to the true heroes simply observing monsters in the background. For much of the film, they exist only to further the narrative of Godzilla and Kong themselves rather than make the film all about them. Adam Wingard recognizes that whenever things get a little to indulgent, it’s time to insert a monster or fight scene to keep it interesting and whisking the film’s pace forward. We never dive into what happened between Millie Bobby Brown’s parents, the back story of Kong’s only human friend Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the history of Apex and on and on. “Godzilla vs Kong” is focused primarily on that and that alone. The question is how can we continue have these two square off until they team instead of I wonder what every single human character in this thing thinks about these monsters.
Sure, some of them are chocked up to nothing more than archetypes that might as well wear a sign that says “High, I’m Mr. Bad Guy” but I can forgive that BECAUSE you’re not trying to overcomplicate their motivations. I get it, corporation bad, monsters good.
Wingard seems to understand this more than his previous directors, and opts to focus on the monsters rather than big, nuanced, existential questions of man’s place in the world. It’s there, sure, but it’s glossed over in lieu of more ridiculous, caricature type humans. This is a movie about a giant ape squaring off against a giant lizard. No one comes to this thing hoping to dive into a philosophical debate about the existence of man and how to rekindle love in the time of destruction. Leave all that shit at the door and these guys bang it out. And for the most part, “Godzilla vs Kong” does just that. There are still plenty of humans to watch if you’re into that, but their narratives are cut down significantly to make room for the big boys to slug it out in Hong Kong.
Jia is a terrific example of how to properly use a human character as an entry point for a misunderstood monster. “Godzilla vs Kong” wastes no time in setting up her relationship to Kong, and never lingers on it more than we need to. Without trying to spell it all out to us, it’s established that she has a bond with Kong, and we eventually discover then can communicate. Kong has a friend and will protect her at all costs, and by focusing on how KONG views that friendship rather than why she’s more important than everyone else makes both characters more accessible and sympathetic. “Godzilla: King of Monsters” would’ve spent a large chunk of time trying to figure out why Jia is special, why Kong trusts her, and probably make her related to someone who died that also loved Kong or some stupid shit like that. “Godzilla vs Kong” skips all of that, and rightfully so. I cared more about Jia and Kong in the 10 minutes than I ever did about Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Godzilla, and they basically got an entire movie dedicated to trying to sell us on their bond.
The film isn’t without its roster of useless humans, either. “Godzilla vs Kong” sports quite a few notable characters that wouldn’t be missed in an alternate cut. Alexander Skarsgård as Dr. Nathan Lind is a pretty useless protagonist that could be combined with Rebecca Hall as Dr. Ilene Andrew who is also just here for…reasons. I’m all for more Eiza González screen time, but she’s crammed in as Maya Simmons and could literally be anyone. And then there’s Millie and friends, who are our Godzilla human interpreters and could be deleted from the film entirely and it wouldn’t change the narrative one bit. None of them have the same bond or relevance with and to Godzilla, other than the need to connect this film to the previous ones by including characters from “Godzilla: King of Monsters.” I’m not entirely sure Godzilla even needs human entry points, either. I get why it’s here, but it’s certainly not done with as much care and concern as Kong.
Honestly, “Godzilla vs Kong” feels more like Kong 2 than Godzilla 3, with the focus being much more on furthering Kong’s narrative and Godzilla being a major player in that story. But the mere fact that I can articulate which monster is the focus and why they’re here in the first place is a compliment to the overall execution of the film. I can’t say that for any of the previous entries into the franchise because they are relegated to side characters so we can focus on their human characters. “Godzilla vs Kong” almost corrects this mistake entirely, giving us clear, defined monster characterizations that are shown more through their actions rather than constant exposition from people we really don’t care about.
I’m inclined to say that because of this major course correction, “Godzilla vs Kong” is the best entry in the recent franchise to date. It still has plenty of issues, but the simple fact that they’ve sought to correct the biggest one allows me overlook the more minor ones.
This film is exactly that, and for the most part delivers on that very thing. And that my friends, is a good monster movie.
“Godzilla vs Kong” opens in theaters and will stream exclusively on HBO Max starting March 31st, 2021.