It’s hard to talk about something like Godzilla vs. Kong and not just equate it to a blow-by-blow recount. This doesn’t make such a film bad as it’s rather pleasing on an exciting level of giant monsters beating each other up. It does, however, make it one of those films where the spectacle is such a treat that the giddy kid in me comes out to defend this film as much as I adored the romp of Kong: Skull Island. There will no doubt be some viewer who can’t wait to tell me how a film with hollow Earth and spirits living in monster skulls doesn’t make sense and that the whole film is just an excuse to watch Kong slash at Godzilla with an energy-powered ax. All I can really reply with is “But did you see how badass that ax looked?”
Godzilla vs. Kong thankfully does learn lessons from the films that preceded it. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) was a hard film to appreciate because the star monster is obscured in scenes of too much smoke, snow, and rain. The most important thing you want out of a giant monster movie is to be able to see the giant monsters go at it. While the hiding approach did build suspense for 2014’s American remake of Godzilla, it’s not as favorable when audiences are coming into a film that promises from its very title that Godzilla and King Kong will fight. And, boy, do they fight!
Sure, there’s a story to this picture and it’s thankfully not one bogged down in lore, exposition, and human drama that is never the draw and always falls flat. The premise is that Kong is longing for his mysterious home that resides in the lost Hollow Earth and that Godzilla is seeking to wipe out the remaining remnents of King Ghidorah, less the evil organization of Apex use it to make their own Godzilla. A Godzilla made out of a mecha. A…Mechagodzilla! And, yes, the human characters literally say this line. They know their place in their picture, meant to be exposition but not too much exposition.
Because, really, do we need a whole of explanation for such a picture? All of it eventually boils down to Godzilla and King Kong duking out in Hong Kong, soon shifting their focus to defeating Mechagodzilla. The rest is all presentation and it’s a visual treat of a showdown. The opening match between King Kong and Godzilla takes place at sea, with Godzilla zooming through the waters while Kong hops from ship to ship to avoid drowning. Taking place during the day, we can see every punch thrown, every explosion caused, and every burst of atomic breathe without issue. The camera still experiments with some clever point-of-view shots from ships that tumble to aircraft being smashed and used as projectiles.
I really dug how the film never lets the humans take over the script once a collective of Team Kong humans follow the giant ape into the Hollow Earth, where gravity is tricky and all sorts of monsters are scurrying about. This includes man-eating bats and something that looks like a cross between a snake and a manta-ray that can fly through the skies. Astute audiences don’t require much explanation for a realm with monsters. This isn’t our first time to such a fantastical place nor is it for the likes of the organization Monarch that has become used to such sights. You don’t question much of it. You just follow Kong and watch in wonder as he picks up a mighty ax and takes his place at the throne of monsters.
Director Adam Wingard is not only aware of how to make such monster framing look cool but breathe with character as well. We feel for Kong because he’s expressive enough with a deaf girl that you can feel his homesickness in his face and the distrust he has with humanity. There’s a mystery to Godzilla in trying to figure out why he’s attacking specific parts of the globe, making for a uniquely confounding kaiju. Ultimately, though I’m not keen on the whole taking a side in a versus picture, it’s clear that Kong gets the most love. He has the most emotion, the most drive, and gets hurt several times that there’s a real chance he can lose a fight, making his victorious fatalities of ripping off heads all the more earned and thrilling. The way he stumbles and struggles to stand during his climactic battle in Hong Kong is perfectly staged to not only understand what’s going on in such a chaotic scene but feel for the giant ape trying to defend his world.
It’s clear that the American giant monster movies are never going to attain the richer satire and appeal of Japan’s recent revival of Shin Godzilla but this film at least grasps the importance of a monster showdown. Running at under two hours, the film has been refined enough to deliver on what it promises without a lot of fat, resorting the human characters to familiar tropes of conspiracy theorist who stumbles onto the truth (Brian Tyree Henry), the confident kid who isn’t afraid to expose the evil organization (Millie Bobbie Brown), the sinister agent seeking to sabotage Kong (Eiza González), and the greedy CEO who is too busy investing in robots he can’t see when the giant one he has constructed attacks him (Demián Bichir). There’s a particularly great moment when the CEO has his speech about power cut off abruptly by Mechagodzilla’s attack on him. One onlooker remarks that he really wanted to hear that speech. I didn’t and I doubt the audience for such a film is all that interested in a meandering monologue heard time and time again. Godzilla vs. Kong is a film smart enough to trim off such fat from a meaty steak of a disaster picture.