I’ll be honest, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) left me disappointed and apathetic toward the future of the MonsterVerse. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). To be fair, when the trailer hit I was definitely energized, but I had also thought the 2019 Godzilla film had an excellent trailer as well. So, I probably wasn’t alone in approaching the latest Godzilla and Kong movie with cautious optimism. Thankfully, I can say that Godzilla vs. Kong exceeded my expectations, adding another solid entry to the franchise. The film has its flaws, particularly from the characters and the way the plot is divided. The pacing, action and effects, though, are enough to create something that’s solid popcorn entertainment and worth revisiting.
As a word of warning, this review does contain spoilers for the film.
In terms of plot, the movie opens with Kong’s “new” home on Skull Island. As it turns out, the harsh weather system seen around the isle in Kong: Skull Island (2017) has creeped further inland. This has forced Monarch to create an artificial dome to protect a small part of the landmass and the now giant Kong. Meanwhile, a conglomerate called Apex Cybernetics has a facility uncharacteristically attacked by Godzilla. This puts the world on high alert, while Apex accelerates their plans. This plan involves finding a new energy source to power the project they are working on. Findings pinpoint this energy as being in the center of the planet, in the Hollow Earth. To acquire it, they convince Nathan Lind, a former Monarch researcher on the Hollow Earth, to make an expedition there. Nathan believes Kong is key and would be able to lead them successfully. The former researcher persuades Monarch to relocate Kong. However, this catches the attention of Godzilla, who sees Kong as a rival. The King of the Monsters makes a direct path toward the Skull Island defender. While this is going on, a group led by Madison Russell from Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) is trying to understand why Godzilla is acting uncharacteristically… and what secrets Apex is hiding.
All in all, the plot is okay. It’s not particularly deep but does establish enough of the world and justification for the battle between the titular titans. It’s also “light on its feet”, rarely feeling like it bogs down the viewer. As a result, pacing is good here, moving the story along at a good stride while sprinkling in frequent monster action to satisfy viewers. The fault of the story, though, is the divided approach it takes.
Essentially, the movie breaks its story and character focus into two fractions. One fraction is focused on Kong and the other is focused on Godzilla, although as it turns out this is more on Mechagodzilla by the end. This type of story approach is difficult but can work. However, there just isn’t much justification for it here. The “Godzilla side” ends up being unnecessary. Their contributions are to provide the audience a window to see the secret Mechagodzilla project. This wasn’t needed, the film could easily have shown the perspective of the Apex CEO as it does on occasion to fulfill the same audience need. The CEO’s daughter is also among the Kong group, providing easy justification to explore more about Apex without having to feature a separate cast of characters. The Godzilla fraction’s other contribution is to momentarily stall Mechagodzilla. This is also not needed, and in fact feels like it was thrown in to give the group something to do.
Oddly, juxtaposed with how this is approached in a lot of other films, the fractions never really intersect. There isn’t a defining moment where they all meet up, banter, and then work to achieve a combined goal. Yes, there is a final shot of everyone together, but they don’t verbally communicate with each other. Also, while the pacing is good here, there are a few moments where the story transitions from the Kong fraction to the Godzilla fraction that do feel like a slight drag.
Now the other problem with the dividend approach is with the characters themselves. Franchise films, with probably the best example being Avengers: Infinity War, can juggle large casts of characters amongst divided narratives. This is thanks to earlier movies already developing those characters, so they are familiar to audiences. Godzilla vs. Kong doesn’t have this luxury. Only two characters here are reoccurring, which are Madison Russell and her father in a small role. As a result, the movie suffers from the same dilemma as the prior two MonsterVerse entries: too many characters to develop.
Much of the large character assemble is paper thin in this movie. For example, we know next to nothing about Ilene Andrews played by Rebecca Hall, even though she is one of the principal characters in the movie. By the end she can be summed up by her devotion to Kong and her devotion to the child Jia… and really that’s it. We don’t learn anything else about her.
Other characters aren’t quite as bad. For example, for Nathan Lind we are given a brief but tragic backstory around his brother passing away. For Bernie Hayes, from the “Godzilla fraction”, we are also given a brief but tragic backstory around his wife passing away. You’ve also got the Iwi native Jia who is given a brief but tragic backstory of her parents passing away. …and yes, it should be apparent that the movie goes to the “loved one passed away and is motivating their actions” well one too many times. This wouldn’t be so bad if the movie developed the other cast even a little, but no such luck which makes this scant development around their loss really stand out. In fact, the best the audience gets is the Apex Cybernetics CEO, Walter Simmons, and his desire to return humanity as the apex species, usurping titans. It’s cartoony in its grandeur, and never really given a personal justification, but at least it’s something. That contrasts with others like Ren Serizawa, played by Shun Oguri, for which the audience learns nothing about. What drives him, why is he here… and what the heck is his relation to Ichiro Serizawa from the earlier films? Nothing is touched on, and it would have been better had he just been called Apex henchmen #001.
So, the film has too many characters… how are the performances? Given the lack of development, many don’t have much to work with. The standout performances are definitely Alexander Skarsgard‘s Nathan Lind and Kaylee Hottle’s performance as Jia, the Iwi Native. For Skarsgard, the movie proves that he’s just a very charismatic actor, which helps make his character likeable. In fact, he nails the good natured, sometimes naïve aspect of the character effortlessly and is someone I would like to see return to the franchise in future installments. As for Hottle, she plays the deaf character Jia who communicates by sign language. This presents a perfect bridge to the Kong character, and their interactions are a highlight of the movie… well outside of the monster action. Hottle, who herself is deaf, gives a great performance here, able to successfully emote in her actions and expressions. Consequently, another character and actor who hopefully returns in later movies.
Now I’ve picked on the film a bit at this point. Despite those faults, though, the film does work as a whole. That is due to the strength and frequency of the monster scenes. The movie does a great job of tying the “Kong fraction” in with Kong too. They are often there, right in the action, making their scenes offer exposition that is never far away from the monsters themselves. The fact that Kong offers such a wealth of expressions too helps make these monster scenes even better for the audience. As director Adam Wingard noted in our interview with him, it’s almost to the point where the human element isn’t required anymore to tell the story. Not that, that wouldn’t be a Herculean task for a full-length film, but the audience can certainly understand and empathize with Kong on a basic level just through his expressions thanks to the stellar special effects.
As for the battles, they are a highlight of the entire MonsterVerse franchise. In fact, the only contender for the crown outside of this film is the stellar Kong vs. Skullcrawler battle for the climax of Kong: Skull Island (2017), which still deserves kudos. What makes the action work here is the creativity and energy infused in the scenes, something which felt lacking in its immediate predecessor. When Kong swings around the Warbat and slams the other out of the sky it’s hard not to illicit a reaction from the viewer, whether that’s a “whoa!” or a “yeah!”. Sequences of the first Godzilla and Kong battle, like Godzilla slamming into the warship with Kong on it or the famous punch to Godzilla as the camera pans, were spoiled by the trailer but still impress in the context of later watching them during the film.
In terms of the climax… I will be honest that I was fooled by the tagline: “one will fall”. As a result, I was bracing for one of the titans to perish, with my money on Kong. Neither does, of course, unless the tagline was referring to Mechagodzilla. Speaking of, my fear was that the mech character would really feel thrown in. A lot of work from the plot is devoted to make that not the case though, introducing elements of him early. While he does feel convenient as a way to give both Godzilla and Kong a moment of glory at the end, it’s also just really satisfying to see a battle that isn’t limited to one-on-one. Having Godzilla and Kong both battling Mechagodzilla simultaneously wasn’t something I realized I wanted so bad until I saw it on the screen.
Now while I have heaped on praise here at the end, I do want to briefly address the score by Tom Holkenborg. The composer has worked on movies like Deadpool and is probably familiar to soundtrack fans, although possibly as Junxie XL as he is sometimes known as. For this film he turns in an… okay score. It’s not very memorable, but gets the job done. In fact, the only segments that really stands out is when its evoking other themes and this only happens twice. Once, although its reoccurring, is for Godzilla’s new theme that sounds similar to Akira Ifukube’s classic theme for a few seconds before deviating in a way that doesn’t really connect back to it. The other is the use of the HALO drop theme from Godzilla (2014), which is unexpected and actually a pleasant surprise.
In all, this is a really enjoyable popcorn flick. I do prefer the first two entries in the MonsterVerse over Godzilla vs. Kong, but this is still a solid movie and one that has me fully energized and looking forward to more MonsterVerse films. Hopefully the momentum and goodwill the movie has built up with audiences carries the franchise for years to come.