By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall and Millie Bobby Brown
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein
From the opening scene of GODZILLA VS. KONG, it’s clear whose side the movie is on. King Kong–the supersized incarnation introduced in 2017’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND–wakes up in his jungle home, scratches his butt, showers under a waterfall…in other words, goes through a morning routine that immediately anthropomorphizes him and gets us to like him. If that isn’t enough, he’s seen to have bonded with a little deaf girl, Jia (Kaylee Hottle). Then a surprise revelation throws us into the updated world of the MonsterVerse that Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have built up over SKULL ISLAND and their previous two GODZILLA epics, and we’re off to the races.
There’s a bit of retconning involved in getting the series to this point, where the much-anticipated clash of the Titans can take place. Apparently all the subsidiary creatures seen at the end of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS have made themselves scarce, as has Godzilla himself, in the three years since that movie’s events, but now the Big G emerges from the Gulf of Mexico to blast and trash the hi-tech headquarters of Apex Cybernetics. Given the premise, there’s a sneaky joke in that corporation’s name, given an extra nudge when one of the letters fritzes out in one scene. Fans of this genre will get another smile when we’re taken to the Denham University of Theoretical Science, where Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is approached by Apex topper Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) and Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), son of Ishiro “Let them fight” Serizawa from the previous GODZILLA entries. Dr. Lind has written a book on the Hollow Earth theory first proposed by Houston Brooks in SKULL ISLAND; his brother successfully traveled to that fantastical space at the world’s core, but died during the trip.
The all-purpose dead relative also plays into the backstory of Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a low-level Apex employee using his job to feed his Titan Truth conspiracy podcast. Among those who believe his theories is Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), returning from KING OF THE MONSTERS, who drags her computer-geek pal Josh (Julian Dennison from HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE and DEADPOOL 2) on a mission to track Bernie down, and then infiltrate Apex with him. This subplot at first seems tangential to the main action and present mostly to satisfy the kids in the audience, who probably won’t be concerned that the trio wind up taking an underground tunnel trip that rockets them at a speed over 600 mph with no apparent g-force effects.
But enough nitpicking; not all of the details of GODZILLA VS. KONG hold together, but the big picture is mightily entertaining. The script, by Eric Pearson (THOR: RAGNAROK) and series regular Max Borenstein, is cleaner and more direct than the overcluttered scenario of KING OF THE MONSTERS, and if the human side is no more dimensional, it’s a great deal more plausible. Giving Kong a sympathetic side allows for an added connection between people and monsters not previously present in this franchise; Dr. Ilene Andrews, the chief scientist studying Kong and Jia’s guardian, is given a warm and likable reading by the great actress Rebecca Hall. She teams up with Dr. Lind on a mission with Kong that could protect the world from future monster destruction, and though her role becomes mostly reactive in the film’s second half, Hall’s winning presence is an asset throughout. Also along for that ride in purely functional parts are Eiza González (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES) as Simmons’ daughter and the JOHN WICK films’ Lance Reddick as a military man named Guillermin (nudge nudge).
That journey is interrupted by Godzilla, and this first titanic tussle is a beaut, dynamically staged by director Adam Wingard, who graduates with ease from the smaller likes of YOU’RE NEXT, THE GUEST and BLAIR WITCH to mega-scale action. There’s a contagious gee-whiz awe to the way he presents the hardware and science-fiction trappings in GODZILLA VS. KONG, a fan’s enthusiasm for cinema’s two greatest giant monsters and doing right by their biggest screen showcase ever. There are little visual references to Toho’s original KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, other films featuring these beasts and even JAWS scattered throughout the gargantuan battles, and plenty of original beats too, which add to the genuine awesome excitement. There are even moments of grace and beauty when Kong is introduced to a new environment, and we learn that giant monsters, like the rest of us, just want a place to call home.
There’s also a Big Surprise, discovered by Bernie, Madison and Josh in a moment that justifies their subplot, that is likely no surprise by now, but I’ll keep it one just in case someone has found their way to this review without learning of it. It adds a big extra level that sparks the lengthy climax set in Hong Kong, where a dizzying amount of smashing and bashing takes place. The events that get the story there are rather dubious and geographically unsound, but by the time we get to this point in GODZILLA VS. KONG, we’re so primed so well for the battle royale that a few inconsistencies can be overlooked. GODZILLA VS. KONG delivers on the long-anticipated promise of its title, and demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. On that note: The reason this review is a couple of days after the movie’s opening is that I wanted to catch it in IMAX, which I did at a theater practicing all safety protocols. While the large-screen format is the best way to see GODZILLA VS. KONG, only do so if you can with minimal risk.