‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Throws Down for a Monster of a Good Time

Godzilla vs. Kong” breathes, eats, stomps and defines the very word spectacle. As the title promises it lets two of cinema’s iconic beasts, the atomic lizard Godzilla and titan gorilla King Kong, throw down without a referee in sight. After three previous films establishing Warner Bros.’ answer to the MCU, the Monsterverse, the studio now finally achieves its own, legitimate mash-up epic. It’s a full throttle action ride while at the same time celebrating how modern special effects should properly be used. Just because you’re going big doesn’t mean there needs to be a lack of artistry. Director Adam Wingard films a war of kaijus, a tribute to campiness, issues warnings about our hubris as a species, while producing images that look like Edgar Rice Burroughs on acid.

The film opens on a slumbering Kong, who awakens within a lush jungle landscape that looks like his usual turf, Skull Island. But it turns out Kong is actually being kept locked in a simulation of his old home at a facility belonging to Apex Cybernetics. Right on queue Godzilla suddenly emerges from the sea and wrecks a chunk of the facility, scaring the fair citizens of Pensacola, Florida in the process. After defeating the three-headed Ghidora in 2019’s “King of the Monsters,” it was assumed Godzilla was a protector of Earth. Monarch, the once secret government agency keeping track of the big G and the other “Titans,” worry he’s gone rogue. But Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), daughter of head Monarch scientist Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), believes Godzilla was simply responding to something in the facility he deems a threat. A scheme is also afoot with Apex CEO Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), who gets scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), to convince Kong expert Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), to lead an expedition with Kong towards “Hollow Earth.” This is the underground world where the Titans possibly come from. Simmons doesn’t care for research. He needs a specific power source for his own devices. But on the way Godzilla returns for the first of several showdowns with his fellow, hairy leviathan.

In this era of vast movie universes with their own, intricate mythologies, the Monsterverse has delivered by staying true to its genre. Yet each entry has boasted its own style. The first was 2014’s “Godzilla,” where Gareth Edwards directed with a Stanley Kubrick eye for patient reveals and a magnificent sense of scale. 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” reintroduced the Olympian ape in a gritty period piece set during the Vietnam War, with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts referencing movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.” The weaker entry was “King of the Monsters,” an ear-splitting CGI fest where great monster battles were obscured by endless dust and snow. “Godzilla vs. Kong” combines the best elements of the previous three films into one massive entertainment. Wingard has mostly worked in inventive horror films like “V/H/S” and “Blair Witch.” This helps explain why here he has a knack for campiness and large scale action scenes that never get too choppy or confusing. Unlike Michael Bay’s “Transformers” behemoths, the plot and editing are coherent, with elements of fun sci-fi fantasy worthy of H.G. Wells combined with some contemporary paranoia. At first the idea is simple: Godzilla and Kong are two kaijus who inhabit one Earth too many, and the evil Simmons hopes to take advantage to make humans the dominant species once more. 

But the screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein doesn’t stop there. It has smaller scale, loving tributes to many things, including classic adventures tales. There’s also a reimagining of recognizable story elements from previous movies involving these monsters. Kong’s human friend through the story is Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a young native from Skull Island who survived a storm that wiped the place out. She has some wonderful moments bonding with Kong through sign language, or walking through the rain on a ship to touch his finger. Once Lind and Andrews follow Kong into Hollow Earth, accompanied by Wilson’s mercenary daughter Maya (Eiza González), the film takes on a trippy, Arthur Conan Doyle meets “Heavy Metal” ambiance. Just entering the passageway leading to the secret zone becomes a psychedelic wormhole experience out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Hollow Earth itself is designed like some hidden panorama near the Earth’s core with lush jungles, giant, semi-dinosaur creatures and hallucinatory landscapes of floating particles and gems. Is this Kong’s original home? It seems like it when he finds a comfortable, giant stone-space shaped like a throne to sit on, complete with a battle axe hiding a particular secret.    Back on the surface the movie has great fun with a character like Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a conspiracy theorist with a radio show that spreads jargon Alex Jones would be proud of. Of course unlike Jones, Hayes’s suspicions actually turn out to be true. 

But let’s get to the point: 90% of viewers who will be streaming “Godzilla vs. Kong” on HBO Max or venturing out to just reopened theaters (the ideal format if you stay safe) want to know about the rumble in the jungle. In sheer terms of Hollywood big-budget filmmaking it’s a glorious, earth-shaking extravaganza. Like Gareth Edwards, Wingard films the action with a sense of grandiose, widescreen cinema. The editing is not frenetic but allows us to take in the scale of what’s going on. The first battle between these kaiju is a masterful showdown at sea where Godzilla and Kong trade boxers blows over flaming battleships and eventually wrestle underwater. Roll your eyes you snobs, but Wingard captures it all like feverish pop art. Turn off any stubborn sense that none of this could ever happen and enjoy how Wingard imagines Kong’s massive hand slamming onto the deck of a ship or Godzilla emerging from turbulent waves. This is almost topped by a ferocious battle between the two giants in a neon-lit Hong Kong, where the blows hurt and buildings shatter like metallic sand. This scene itself is also a great homage to Godzilla’s origins in Asian cinema, going back to “Gojira,” that first great 1954 metaphor for atomic fears by Irisho Honda. Of course the final battle is even wilder, with a third, steely participant jumping in that will make fans of the original “Godzilla” franchise cheer. There are no rules when kaijus fight. For every punch by a Kong there’s a blast of atomic breath from Godzilla. Tom Holkenborg’s music score intensifies everything with its hybrid of orchestral and electronic sound.

Human stories are not what viewers are seeking when watching a movie titled “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but there’s still some decent, B-movie thought put into the narrative here. Even the original, gloriously campy 1963 “King Kong vs. Godzilla” had an anti-corporate message, with its “villains” being snarky CEOs hoping to capture Kong in order to turn him into their company mascot. If there’s a message here buried beneath the large action, it’s that we think too highly of ourselves as humans when trying to control Mother Nature. Bichir’s egomaniac CEO is convinced he can get rid of the Titans because he has the right to. Madison Russell, Bernie Hayes and a geeky companion, Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), are the sobering voices who understand and respect the Titans’ power. Hopefully in the future Godzilla won’t be seen as a prophetic pop icon for how we never did a thing to stop climate change. But that’s all to ponder during the end credits. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is simply a lot of fun if you like a well-made kaiju movie. This is one of the best recent ones and a fitting, roaring signal that our year-long blockbuster drought might be coming to an end.

Godzilla vs. Kong” releases March 31 on HBO Max and select cities.