Godzilla vs. Kong comes packaged with an easy enough proposition for monster movie fans who’ve been craving something larger than life to hit their screen this year. It’s the culmination of several films all building upon one another since Gareth Edwards’ reboot of the central character in 2014, but the irony is that you don’t really need to see any of those films (or remember what happened in them, honestly) in order to get the full experience of this globe-trotting, city-smashing, Kaiju death match.
Warner Bros.’ shared cinematic universe for both Godzilla and Kong has been a mostly ho-hum exercise — none of the movies thus far have been all that disastrous, necessarily, just simply forgettable and lacking in solid, consistent direction. Taking the reins this time around is Adam Wingard, the unlikely director behind You’re Next and that Death Note live-action movie on Netflix we don’t talk about. Someone should’ve probably suggested a Godzilla movie to him a long time ago. Previous directors have seen the epic titan smash his way through a rogue’s gallery of familiar monsters from the character’s storied, cinematic past, but Godzilla vs. Kong nails the fundamentals in what makes these monster-mash movies land some decent punches.
You know it’s a good sign when even the human characters are at least halfway interesting. Taking a beat from the manic and scattered bystander ensemble of Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie, Godzilla vs Kong keeps its main storyline focused on two key groups of humans, and almost all of them include new faces, thankfully. There are no too-clever-by-half cameos or reveals, just straightforward, serviceable characters who find some intelligent, useful function in this movie’s undying mission to force Godzilla and Kong to clash in glorious fashion, no matter what contrivances the script may have to conjure.
As for the plot, it’s essentially a mash up of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and (weirdly, enough) Disney’s Atlantis. Godzilla is still battling it out all over Earth trying to keep his title as “king of the monsters,” but as he starts attacking a shady tech corporation seemingly unprovoked, the CEO of said shady tech corporation (Demián Bichir) bankrolls a totally not shady mission to uncover the secrets behind “Hollow Earth,” a visually prehistoric homeland for all these pesky titans, which is located near the center of the planet. The catch is that he needs Kong, who is at this point held captive by Monarch, to guide a group of scientists and explorers there for reasons you don’t really need to understand beyond a few pithy dialogue exchanges. These misfit adventurers include Kong’s longtime handler Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), “Hollow Earth” theorist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), and the shady tech CEO’s own daughter and top executive Maya (Eiza González).
The back and forth of Godzilla vs. Kong’s various story mechanics are all pretty minor in the grand scheme of this film’s true purpose. It’s trying with maximum effort to serve up a meaningful and meaningfully bombastic rivalry between two iconic, cinematic heavy hitters with a legacy that can’t be undervalued. Considering the more accessible, crowd-pleasing energy of Kong: Skull Island (which was probably the best of these movies until now), Wingard and the film’s screenwriters — Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein — wisely assign Kong as the film’s titan protagonist. More of an underdog, Kong is a far cry from Godzilla’s fittingly godlike mystique and unpredictability, making him an easy contender to root for, despite having one fewer film spent with him.
Granted, there’s nothing below the surface here, despite a plot all about digging deeper. Godzilla and Kong have their long-anticipated matchup, CGI effects abound, and a flurry of ill-informed choices by humanity make their way into a third act that feels like it was designed for 4D box seats in an amusement park. The good news is it’s all in service of giving the fans of this franchise exactly what they want without being patronizing or pretentious about it (looking at you, King of the Monsters). While previous attempts to ground the explosive flavor of these movies in some sort of operatic melodrama have certainly flatlined for many, including myself, it’s a breath of fresh air to see these films settling into an actual groove that strikes an admittedly herculean balance. Too campy, and nothing feels at stake. Not campy enough, and there’s not much to enjoy. In the battle of your senses, the real winner of Godzilla vs. Kong is its audience.