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Movie Review: The problems multiply in “GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE”

Thursday, March 28, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry and Dan Stevens
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater
Warner Bros./Legendary

It’s kind of sad what has happened to a couple of our best independent horror directors under the recent auspices of Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures on franchise monster movies. First MEG 2: THE TRENCH swallowed up all of Ben Wheatley’s idiosyncrasies, and while Adam Wingard’s GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE isn’t as bereft of personality, it seems to have been made by another filmmaker entirely. Hint: Exceptionally noisy, paced like a feature-length trailer, with magic-hour-all-the-time cinematography, this is the TRANSFORMERS of Godzilla movies. That is not, I’m afraid, meant as a compliment.

Actually, it’s more accurate to call this the TRANSFORMERS of Kong movies, as the Big G is essentially a bit player in his own feature for a long stretch of the running time. He does have a fairly cool battle with a huge spider/cephalopod thing early on (which concludes with the film’s cleverest image), though it’s over too quickly. But then, that’s symptomatic of GODZILLA X KONG as a whole; it’s constantly in a rush to get to the next scene, with none of them given a chance to breathe, and little attention paid to developing suspense or awe or grandeur, and certainly almost none given to character. The lack of storytelling value here is particularly unfortunate given that the screenwriters include Terry Rossio, who co-wrote the GODZILLA script Jan De Bont was going to direct way back when (which was pretty great) and Simon Barrett, Wingard’s longtime collaborator in the horror trenches.

Wingard himself did a fine job piloting the monster bashes in the previous GODZILLA VS. KONG, while allowing for occasional moments of grace and human interaction amongst the spectacle. It’s hard to know what happened here, as the titanic tussles, including (and especially) the final battle royale, are more chaotic than legitimately exciting, with little sense of pacing or spacial coherence. It’s all just in-your-face and loud, loud, loud. And there’s another issue, one that GODZILLA X KONG has in common with some of the recent run of Marvel movies: Fantastical beings always work best when placed in recognizable Earthbound settings, where their monstrous/superhuman natures can stand out. Put them in equally fantastical arenas, and they don’t make as much of an impression. A lot of GODZILLA X KONG takes place in Hollow Earth, with assorted bestial denizens fighting among themselves, and frequently no humans on hand to witness them, so there’s no point of identification.

The people don’t have much to do at all in GODZILLA X KONG, and the ensemble has been pared down to the bare minimum, with those who remain given the most functional of parts. The always-welcome Rebecca Hall is back as Dr. Ilene Andrews, “head of Kong research” for the Monarch organization, balancing her scientific work with caring for adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who is deaf but possesses extrasensory gifts. They have the only meaningful moments of connection in the film, albeit just a few minutes’ worth. Also returning is Brian Tyree Henry as Bernie, self-taught expert on Godzilla, Kong and the other Titans, whose real function here is to fulfill the Wisecracking/Frightened Black Guy role that modern genre cinema really should be past by now. Dan Stevens from Wingard’s THE GUEST (and seen to much better effect in the upcoming CUCKOO) turns up as Trapper, an Aussie adventurer who joins Ilene, Jia and Bernie on their jaunt to Hollow Earth, Alex Ferns is the hardass military type leading them and…that’s about it, really. By the halfway point, they are reduced to doing nothing more than explaining the plot to each other. There is one other group who turn up in the later going, but they’re basically walking, not talking, beatifically smiling plot devices.

One relationship that does somewhat click is between Kong and a “mini-Kong” he encounters in a subterranean realm beneath Hollow Earth, where the creatures that pose the central threat dwell. The little ape figures into a bit of violent slapstick that’s the movie’s best bit of black humor (and one of the few recognizably Wingardian moments), and there’s more pathos to the big and little Kongs’ interactions than anything going on between the more advanced primates. Those enemy monsters are Scar King and Shimu, essentially nastier-looking versions of Kong and Godzilla, but the idea of our gigantic heroes smashing it out with their doppelgangers doesn’t amount to much.

That’s because GODZILLA X KONG isn’t concerned with anything but the next sensation, as the score by Tom Holkenborg and Antonio Di Iorio constantly swells and thunders as if trying to make every scene play like the movie’s climax. Plot developments are glossed over or hurried through to a sometimes ridiculous degree, particularly when it comes to “Project Powerhouse,” that cybernetic hand-and-arm attachment you’ve no doubt seen Kong sporting in the trailers. The need for this device, the out-of-nowhere revelation of its existence, its retrieval and its application to Kong are all accomplished in just the time it takes to play a portion of Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” one of a few head-scratching needle-drops scattered throughout the film.

There is one more, obvious problem affecting GODZILLA X KONG, which is not the filmmakers’ fault and that they couldn’t have foreseen. The movie is arriving just a few months after the U.S. release of Takashi Yamazaki’s marvelously moving and thrilling GODZILLA MINUS ONE, which redefined what a kaiju movie can be. Their close proximity does occasion a thought about the new adventure’s title: If they wanted to make it mathematical, instead of the rather inexplicable use of the multiplication sign, they shoulda called it GODZILLA PLUS/MINUS ONE, reflecting the fact that it’s both too much and not enough.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).