REVIEW: Godzilla vs. Kong – Giant Ape Fights Giant Lizard, What More Could You Ask For?

Godzilla vs. Kong is a film that Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. has been building for years, and what may have originally been seen as the final film for the MonsterVerse may just be what saves the franchise thanks to an impressive blockbuster action-adventure.

Godzilla vs. Kong was first announced in 2015. It now arrives six years after its announcement. More time has passed between that announcement and the film coming out than the four-year wait between after Iron Man broke records to The Avengers hitting theaters. It almost felt like fans would never get to see the film, after the disappointing box-office of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the constant delays to the release due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After six long years, the fight between Godzilla and King Kong has arrived in theaters and on HBO Max.

The MonsterVerse on the whole has been one of those franchises that I’ve never been quite able to get on board with. While I see and respect what the 2014 Godzilla film is trying to do, I find it fails to land as a satisfying experience and falls under its own self-importance. I didn’t like Kong: Skull Island or Godzilla: King of the Monsters when I first saw them in theaters but enjoyed them more when I saw them at home a year after their releases. So my anticipation for Godzilla vs. Kong, despite just how primal and awesome the concept is, was muted for the most part. Until that first trailer dropped, and my anticipation sky-rocketed.

A lot of my issues with the previous films, mainly the two Godzilla films, seemed to be gone. The fights were lit to where you could make out what was happening, no longer concealed by particle effects or cutting away to a less interesting story. Kong punched Godzilla in the face, how does that not just trigger an immediate gut reaction cheer. This looked like it was going to deliver on premise: letting the audience see the two most famous giant movie monsters fight. And I can easily say that Godzilla vs. Kong is my favorite film in the MonsterVerse franchise.

The story is pretty simple: Godzilla has attacked a major facility, and the world perceives him as a threat. In order to stop him, Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) recruits the help of Ilen Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a scientist who has been studying Kong for the past few years, to have him lead them to the point in the Hollow Earth so they can discover an energy source to stop Godzilla. Meanwhile Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown) and her friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) team up with a Kaiju podcast host Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree-Henry) to uncover what is causing Godzilla to attack, and if there is something sinister going on with the corporation Apex and its leader, Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir).

The plot of the film is essentially split up between two teams: Team Kong and Team Godzilla where most of the characters in their respective camps don’t know or care about the other monster except when the forces collide. The plot is pretty simple stuff, and really all an excuse to get Godzilla and Kong to fight each other. Unlike Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which took a simple premise and overcomplicated it, Godzilla vs. Kong just uses the very simple nature of its premise and doesn’t try to make it anything more. It knows the audience is here to watch these two fight. It finds the most economical reason for that to happen other than just Godzilla showing up on Skull Island looking for a fight.

Seeing this film come to life feels like a very interesting evolution of the MonsterVerse franchise. 2014’s Godzilla very much wanted to be a grounded film in a reality the audience recognized, with the addition of Godzilla and the MUTO as new life-changing landmarks. Kong: Skull Island was both a B-movie creature feature mixed with a 70’s style Vietnam war movie. Godzilla: King of the Monsters tried to be the bridge between its predecessor’s serious take on the material and a big-budget realization of the giant Kaiju fights of the Showa era. Here Godzilla vs. Kong has fully embraced itself as a science fiction movie. This is a world that no longer resembles our own, and that is a good thing. The presence of giant creatures has changed the world and we are now in pure science fiction. This film features advanced vehicles, giant machines, and a sequence into the center of the Earth that feels straight out of Julies Verne’s landmark science fiction novel. This is no longer trying to be realistic, it is fully embracing a strange new world.

Godzilla vs. Kong feels like the first time the franchise doesn’t feel embarrassed by its own legacy. The 2014 film tried to return to the franchise to the roots of the original 1954 film as being a dark metaphor, and while that was an admirable effort, it seemed to want to avoid the aspects that made Godzilla a pop culture icon for generations. The reason the most remembered part of the first film is the Kaiju battle is because it was the big-budget realization of what fans could only ever imagine. Godzilla vs. Kong isn’t embarrassed or ashamed that it is a film about a giant ape and giant gorilla fighting. It realizes that concept is silly and this is a franchise that is famous for guys in rubber costumes beating each other up, and decides to make the best version of that idea with top CGI.

Whereas Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters emphasized the monsters’ scale as towering figures, Godzilla vs. Kong instead decides to frame them in more a sense of child-like wonderment. More so than any other film in the MonsterVerse franchise, this movie feels in tone and visual styles like what a child would create playing with a Godzilla toy and a King Kong toy. The fights are all impressed with a great sense of choreography with the camera instead of framing these two as giant pieces of terror as giant wrestlers moving around a combat arena and doing cool tricks. The cities and monsters themselves are shot like big-budget highly detailed versions of the classic kaiju miniature cities with the monsters moving around them freely.

Godzilla vs. Kong embraces the nature of these giant monsters as figures of child-like wonderment by having both monsters supported by a child character, acting as the audience POV character. Unlike the rest of the world Madison still believes in Godzilla. Everyone else views him as a destructive force that must be dealt with, she still sees him as a good misunderstood figure who is there to help: like many children who discover and grow up with Godzilla movies. Kong meanwhile is seen as a necessary force, but one many of the adult humans only see as a tool for their own needs or as a figure to be studied. Except for Jai (Kaylee Hottle), a young deaf girl who is able to communicate with Kong. In a pivotal moment in the third act, she communicates with Kong and signs to him “please be careful.” The actress’s performance here is heartbreaking and helps signify for the audience that while this is big and silly, it is that child-like wonder and investment that makes it real. She, and many other children who watch these films, don’t see Kong as a monster but identify with him, and they just want what is best for him.

It is in that framing where Godzilla vs. Kong succeeds the most out of any of the films in the franchise, by giving distinct characteristics to the two title monsters. Kong is the easier of the two to humanize, but unlike Kong: Skull Island where he is a presence, here the filmmakers actually make Kong the central character and give him an arc. He is just looking for a home, and everyone from the humans to Godzilla keeps getting in his way. Every battle Kong is dragged into makes him the Kaiju version of Dante from Clerks where his roars could be translated as “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” Godzilla on the other hand is given a balance between his previous two films statuses as the hero of the world and his old school menace. Godzilla clearly is a lizard on a mission and isn’t really in the mood for anybody getting in his way. There is even a subtle character moment where the two titans stare each other down and Godzilla, with a simple head tilt, tells Kong and the audience “stay out of my way and I will let you live.”

There has been a lot said about the various human characters across the MonsterVerse franchise and each film has had its mixed results. Each one has a standout performance, and while nobody goes to see these movies for humans the films could do a better job at making the audience care for them (both Pacific Rim and the 2005 King Kong do this pretty well). Kong: Skull Island probably had the best human characters just because while they were over the top, they were memorable. Which is a shame that none of the characters from Kong: Skull Island get to appear in this film. While I do love Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall as performers and am always down for them being in more movies, it feels like their roles in the story could have easily been filled by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Since Kong: Skull Island took place in the 70’s you would need to recast the roles with older actors but it would have allowed the cast to feature some great older character actors who don’t often get cast in films but also reduce some of the films set up: those are two characters who already have a history with Kong so it would allow the filmmakers to save time in needing to set up new characters.

The status of the MonsterVerse appears to be up in the air, with Godzilla vs. Kong either acting as an ending or the beginning of a new phase. If this is the end, it is a pretty good note to end on. But now I am left wanting to see more of these films, which is not a sentiment I’ve felt after coming out of the prior three films. There are still plenty of characters to introduce including Destroyah, Gigan, Jet Jaguar, King Caesar, Mecha-Kong…heck you could even do Minilla (Godzilla’s son) in a fight with Kong Jr. (from the 1933 Son of Kong) for a rematch. Maybe the future could even see them make a deal to work in the other famous Kaiju, Gamera, into this franchise. There are so many more possibilities now.

Godzilla vs. Kong is a big-budget fantasy science fiction that shows these giant monsters with child-like wonderment. It is silly and fun and none of those are flaws; they are features of a good time that makes for a great late-night creature feature with friends while splitting a pizza and soda, or in the morning as a matinee like a giant cartoon. If you have kids I imagine the final act of this movie will be playing for a whole straight month in your house while it is in on HBO Max.

 

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Enterta