I won’t tell you who wins, I swear. This is a big moment. One of the most obvious large-scale blockbuster movies Hollywood could greenlight. It was a big deal when these two first crossed paths back in the heyday of monster movies in the original 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla (which is wonderful). The monster fan in me is delighted to see the excitement these two beasts can still garner in 2021, pandemic and all. These kings are clearly embedded in the pop culture soul. It’s hard not to heed the call.
Worry and wonder no more. For all the film’s imperfections, the monster battles in Godzilla vs. Kong are indeed stunning. Your eyes will be blown out of your head from all the CGI light shows you will be blasted with. This is as fine a blockbuster as any to signal the return of the theater experience. I will admit that I opted to watch it through HBO Max because I have yet to be fully vaccinated (if you are reading this in some far-flung future, let me inform you that in 2021 there was this thing called the Coronavirus and it really sucked). I must say, that regardless of the size of your screen, it is impossible to deny that these monster brawls deliver in awe-inspiring ways.
Some time has passed since the events of 2019’s King Of The Monsters. Monarch, the organization monitoring the monsters of the earth, returns to the forefront and so do a host of familiar faces from the previous film installments. Monarch has been charged with the monumental task of watching over King Kong, who they keep in an enormous Truman Show-type virtual reality dome. We soon find that they are not the only organization with an interest in monsters. Enter Apex, a shadowy Hong Kong tech group led by a laughably hokey villain who may as well have been played by Vincent Price in a cape had this been filmed a few decades earlier. Apex is bent on getting humanity back to the top of the evolutionary food chain by any means necessary, and this means infiltrating Monarch to steal what they can to aid in the creation of their secret monster-slaying weapon.
Taking a chance, Monarch ultimately unleashes Kong who sets off on a journey, led by instinct toward his ancestral kingdom and a weapon that can pierce the flesh of Godzilla himself. Oh yeah, Godzilla. Don’t worry, he arrives in all his glory early into the film, and he’s mad as all hell. The king of monsters clearly feels threatened by Kong and thus the war begins. The two clash in the glorious rays of sunset and I must say that the fist punch that Kong lands against Godzilla is undeniably cathartic. What follows is a race against time that ends in the showdown everyone has been waiting for.
As you might expect, the real issue here is the age-old nemesis of all monster movies: the human plotlines. I understand that no one goes to these movies for fleshed-out characters and believable drama, but I feel like that excuse has become a bit of a cop-out over the years. There is a way to make these kinds of fantasy films a more complete package, it’s been done before. The Marvel films often are able to balance crowd-pleasing action with fleshed-out characters. The absolutely incredible Shin Godzilla, Japan’s 2016 reboot of the franchise flawlessly finds a way of interweaving social commentary and character study into the monstrous mayhem (I shamelessly use every opportunity I get to recommend this film. Go see Shin Godzilla!). While something that cerebral and risky might be a lot to expect from Hollywood in its current state, we should not back down from wanting more from the world’s most powerful cinematic factory.
This movie’s large ensemble of characters creates an exciting enough variety that keeps your attention, but at the price of all the characters feeling hollow and neglected. I thoroughly enjoyed the presence of Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) who is sort of Kong’s Jane Goodall, as well as her companion Jia, a young girl who speaks to Kong through sign language. Another worthy addition to the Monsterverse is Bernie Hayes, a podcasting, trespassing conspiracy theorist played to paranoid perfection by Brian Tyree Henry.
The real missed opportunity here though is the way Milly Bobby Brown reprises her King Of Monsters character Madison Russell. She is a fine enough central protagonist and again, I’m not asking for Shakespeare here, but her likable character deserves the chance for at least some sort of emotional growth or arc. While she is immediately older and wiser, she is made into a cookie-cutter smart kid heroine who is never unphased or daunted by danger and (again) remains rather one-note right up to the end.
The exaggerated post monster/apocalypse world the previous films have set up helps to keep things engaging and always in the context of the science fiction genre. It is not always clear when the film is trying to sell itself as realistic and when it is letting itself be a little campy, but it is an overall setting that is fitting for monsters to run around in.
So, alright! Fine! Let’s get to the monsters! Godzilla is menacing. Legendry’s take on the beast truly feels as though the spirit of Godzilla was exorcised from his rubber suit and plopped right into this CGI being we see lumbering before us. Kong on the other hand, while exciting and harrowing, has a harder time looking convincing. CGI hair is still pretty hard to pull off it seems. He is a humanoid-type creature and this automatically gives him a not always convincing, almost uncanny valley look when we linger on him for too long. He is, however, very easy to cheer for, and regardless of how silly it may be, Kong with an axe made from a Godzilla spike is undeniably an awesome thing to behold.
The big fight! Yes! It is absolutely incredible. The power of the practical effects that the Toho classics get crap for, would still be something I personally would prefer, and I have to get on my soapbox about it. It may be a little ridiculous on the surface but a person in an actual suit smashing actual physical objects will always feel more satisfying and real than any shattering CGI skyscraper. I will say, that if it’s all gotta be CG (literally everything is) this movie is the best anyone could probably ever do up to this point. The technology is utilized to its fullest. Everything is dialed up to twelve. Hong Kong looks like some kind of rainbow city and the creatures look amazing as they grapple and tear into one another. It’s a stunning sequence.
Okay, spoilers ahead, because now we are getting to the big question. What could possibly follow one of the most visually stunning monster rumbles ever? Unfortunately, an extremely uninspired version of Mecha-Godzilla who basically just looks like a really big Terminator. It’s got the same red eyes and everything. What should have been the thing that sent this film’s final act into the stratosphere, winds up feeling phoned in. How they settled on such a boring design and characterization for one of the most menacing Zilla villains is beyond me. It looks like an easy first boss in some middle-of-the-road video game. I could harass Mecha-Godzilla 2021 for pages but, I’ll let it end there, I suppose.
While it might be the definition of a mixed bag, what is top of the line here, is undeniably top of the line. With few exceptions, every review of this movie, regardless of how many stars are awarded, seems to say roughly the same thing, which is that this movie ultimately gives us what we wanted. I am also in agreement, but I would be remiss if I didn’t stress that it’s okay to ask more of big productions like this. The future of the Monsterverse appears to be up in the air due to various contract issues, but it is safe to say that these two gods of the pop culture landscape will always walk among us. Long live the Kings.
Godzilla vs. Kong was made available to stream on HBO Max on March 31, 2021. You can also watch it in theatres.
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Author: Seth Troyer
Seth is a Columbus Ohio based writer, musician and filmmaker. He earned his BA for communications and creative writing at the University Of Akron. He has written for Dread Central, the Maddwolf film site, and has contributed to various writing anthologies such as Between The Lines, and Purpled Palm Press.
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