“The second you release Kong from containment, Godzilla will come after him.”
In 2014, Warner Bros. and Legendary pictures teamed up with Toho to release Godzilla; the second attempt at a Hollywood film starring the infamous kaiju. The movie would spark the MonsterVerse with its sequels, Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, receiving a mixed critical response, but a mostly positive audience response (interestingly, King Of The Monsters received the lowest critical score, but the highest audience score, of the three on Rotten Tomatoes). Now, in 2021; the kaiju are back to bring us the most anticipated cinematic battle that doesn’t involve space rocks, superpowers or women called Martha – Godzilla vs. Kong.
5 years after Godzilla defeated King Ghidorah in Boston, the world has changed; there is limited kaiju activity under Godzilla’s watchful eye, and Monarch (the international organisation tasked with tracking and containment of the Titans) have Kong in containment on Skull Island to protect him from a potential showdown with his ancient alpha rival. He is being monitored under the watchful eye of Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) with her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the last of the Iwi people of Skull Island. In Pensacola, Florida; conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) has infiltrated a facility owned by the shady Apex Cybernetics, and is trying to uncover shady Titan-related activities when Godzilla unexpectedly attacks and decimates the plant; allowing Hayes to find a huge, suspicious piece of tech, and attracts the attention of young Madison Russell (a returning Millie Bobby Brown) and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison). Meanwhile, Apex Cybernetics CEO Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) recruits Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a Hollow Earth theorist, to take a team led by his daughter Maya (Eiza González) into the Hollow Earth to find an ancient power source that could change the world – but to do that, they’ll need to take Kong from his Monarch containment to lead them through the Hollow Earth…and shenanigans ensue.
That paragraph covers the first 20 minutes or so of the film’s plot, and also essentially covers the entire plot – which is exactly as it should be. Legendary have gotten better with each outing in this series at filing down the complexity of the human element; providing enough plot context to the action to give stakes to the world of the film, without making the detail so complicated that it detracts from what we’re all actually here for. For Godzilla vs. Kong, the narrative has been structured in a way that means we’re almost always running alongside one of the two titular kaiju, which is a smart move; but engaging the beasts much more directly with the central plot, even during the segments where they’re not throwing down directly with each other, it reduces the feeling that we’re missing out on the core premise of the film. The time we do spend away from titans is primarily spent with Bernie, Madison and Josh; who are engaging enough trio to hold the audience’s attention, and the subplot they are working on is interesting and mysterious enough to warrant their attention as well. These three actors are definitely working the hardest, and Brown, Henry and Dennison all deserve a lot of credit for bringing their A games to a very silly film, providing both tension and laughs in equal measure.
Their presence does also highlight the major flaw of the movie; this cast is surprisingly large for what this movie is, and because the narrative is spread out across numerous different branches, nobody really gets a chance to properly shine in the same way that we saw from the previous entries; even the three investigating Apex could potentially have given us even more with an extra scene or two dedicated to their subplot. Kyle Chandler reprises his role as Mark Russell, but you’d be forgiven for missing it; as aside from a couple of brief phone-call scenes with Madison and some other contextual moments, he’s barely present – his total screen time can’t be more than about 5 minutes. It’s a shame, as Mark was one of the most engaging and interesting characters from King Of The Monsters, acting as the audience point of view for much of that film, and to not have him find a larger role to play in the sequel was disappointing to me. What does work particularly well for the humans is that, in keeping with the previous instalments, the human characters constantly find themselves right in amongst the action at all times, often putting our human point of view characters in incredibly dangerous scenarios that involve a giant ape fighting a giant lizard; it ramps up the stakes for the audiences and keeps everyone involved in the central narrative in a truly knuckle-whitening way.
Of course, we’re not really here for the humans; we’re here for the titans, and this is where Godzilla vs. Kong really steps into the light. It cannot be understated that the CGI and visual effects in this movie are outstanding. The team have clearly built on the work they did on the previous films, as everything from the landscapes to the creature design is second to none. The level of design work that goes into the more overtly sci-fi elements is incredible; the entire Hollow Earth sequence looks enough like the known surface of our planet, but feels alien enough to mark it as “undiscovered” territory that the sequence stands out in the whole movie; even amongst other fantastic sets like the inside of the Apex Cybernetics facilities.
The Titans themselves also shine, in both design and performance. The level of detail put into the facial expressions of Godzilla and Kong is incredible; close-up shots of the two reacting to what’s happening around them are of a quality that is best compared to the most recent Planet of The Apes series. The movement is incredible too; I’ve been unable to find any formal credits for the motion capture performers behind the movement of Godzilla and Kong, so I’m not even sure how the character actions were developed; but whichever team was behind it deserves as many awards as they can feasibly be given. The Hollow Earth sequence gives Kong the opportunity to shine in terms of design and movement, as the wide, unfamiliar space gives opportunities to see the great ape really move at full pelt. Similarly, Godzilla’s city attacks give us a much more familiar view of the giant lizard; with his blue fire breath decimating buildings in perpetuity. Of course, both beasts look incredible in both of their fights; one of which takes place at sea across a number of military carriers, the second centred in the beautiful, towering skyline of Hong Kong.
This second locale was well chosen, as the imperceptible height of Hong Kong’s skyline allowed the CGI team to bring in some of the Kong movement that was lost in other potential cityscapes by scaling him up to match Godzilla in size. It cannot be understated how huge some of the buildings in modern Hong Kong are, and it allows Kong to actually climb the buildings as he did in his original western movies, and it adds an extra dynamic to their battle which helps to up the stakes in a great way. All of this comes together to give these battles a lot of weight; every kick, punch, headbutt and tail whip feels heavy and deliberate, every roar carries rage and pain, and there are plenty of moments where each titan looks like they have the fight won, only to be countered at the last moment. The construction of the fights holds a lot of parallels with a modern professional wrestling match; each fighter gets their time to shine, the opportunity to show off the cool moves they have, but also they also get to show off how they can defend against those same moves. The fights are really well structured, which is complimented by the quality of the visual effects used to create them, and it adds up to a very satisfying sequence.
If you enjoyed the previous instalments in the MonsterVerse, I feel pretty confident in saying that you’ll enjoy this outing as well. There was a lot of pressure on this film; both to match the unexpected quality of the previous outings, but also to live up to the pressure of a big-budget blockbuster showdown between two literal Titans of monster cinema. For me, they have absolutely nailed it here; the story is fun and engaging, the visual effects are off the charts, the human actors all seem to be having a lot of fun with the silliness of it all, and the Big Lads Fighting is as big and action-packed as you would want it to be. The only complaint that I have is that this film could almost stand to be a little longer, with an extra scene or two given to fleshing out some of the subplots, and maybe a little more Big Monsters Fighting action (though not specifically another Kong vs. Godzilla conflict).
This one is well worth the price of entry, and if we get IMAX screenings in Ontario when the cinemas start to re-open, I will be in that cinema with bells on to watch it again. I would go so far as to say that it’s Warner Brother’s most consistent and highest quality film series on offer to us right now, and I certainly hope that this isn’t the last time we see their takes on Godzilla and Kong take to the big screen. So, in the now immortal words of Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa:
Let them fight.