When you see a movie like Godzilla vs. Kong, you don’t really expect to walk away thinking one of them was a definitive winner or loser. You expect lots of larger-than-life battles as humans scramble to avoid being crushed like ants, near-death knockouts, and something resembling a tie score at the end of the day.
I hate to say it, but Godzilla vs. Kong has a clear loser. Godzilla may not have lost the battle, but he drew the short end of the stick in this effort, with Kong’s story coming away as the only compelling part of this otherwise pretty-but-beleaguered blockbuster.
This is not a new trend in this monster-verse. Of the more recent Godzilla/Kong shared universe films, Kong has been King. Between Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, only Skull Island comes to mind as a halfway enjoyable film. That’s mostly because it let its funny actors be funny, had some really nice visuals, and didn’t get too bogged down in a complex plot. Godzilla vs. Kong probably ranks second for me behind Skull Island, but truth be told, that’s not saying very much. It fixes some of its sluggish visuals from King of the Monsters, but it doubles down on its ongoing human problem.
Godzilla vs. Kong is a movie with two separate stories that occasionally intertwine. The Kong story is mostly a fresh start from his previous film, with new faces Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) acting as pseudo-Jane Goodalls of Kong behavior. Andrews is worried about Kong’s survival on Skull Island, where he is largely protected from the wrath of apex predator Godzilla due to man-made habitats that have started to fall apart. That concern leads her to agree to a request from an old colleague, Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to use Kong’s instincts to help him track down his original home and help him unlock the science behind these titans.
This part of the story is overwrought with characters and competing interests, but the actual journey following Kong to his home is one of the most compelling parts of the film. We take our time getting there, but Kong’s pilgrimage takes us on a colorful and interesting break from the film’s more monotonous moments. Because here’s the thing about Godzilla vs. Kong: it’s at its worst when people – any and all people – are talking. You’ve got top-notch actors grinding through dialogue that is distractingly, sometimes even shockingly bad, throwing a dozen new thinly sketched character concepts against a wall to just see what sticks. Almost none of it does.
That brings us to the loser of the film: Godzilla. The sort of “B Plot” to the film revolves around the return of Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her attempts to track down some secret corporate work that she believes is taking place to provoke attacks from Godzilla, who in the film’s first 10 minutes reverts from humanity’s savior to its biggest threat. Russell teams up with her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and tin foil hat podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) to basically run around and chase leads for most of the film’s runtime. Every time they’re on screen it sucks the life out of the movie, and no amount of brief cameos from Kyle Chandler as Russell’s father can make it work. (Seriously though – if you haven’t seen the last Godzilla movie you’re going to have no idea why Chandler is randomly on screen now and again to actively contribute almost nothing to the film.)
Occasionally and eventually these threads connect, and in those rare and sparkling moments when they do, the film feels like a large upgrade from what we saw in Godzilla: King of Monsters. Instead of drab, brown, and muddy battle sequences, we get large-scale fights set either against broad daylight or a bold neon cityscape at night. There’s a feeling of an indulgence in these moments, letting them get as silly and as big as possible. The visuals are significantly improved, and the CG work is on full and proud display instead of hiding behind environmental cover.
Kong is also personified well enough that he feels like a fully formed character you can’t help but root for, an obvious underdog who is just trying to hold his own, even if Godzilla’s very quick reversion to the de facto bad guy doesn’t feel earned. The time between those battles, though, (with some of the more interesting Kong stuff aside) feels like an exercise in buying time. Hear me out: we don’t need to see Godzilla or Kong duking it out for half the film. But when they’re not on the screen, something should be done to build up the dread or anticipation of their battles – instead they just kind of occasionally show up out of the blue to rescue the dull narrative.
Godzilla vs. Kong may not fare poorly in the hierarchy of its shared universe films, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It features some of the best-looking fights and compelling visuals of these films yet. But it’s dragged down by some of the worst human interactions to date, and that’s really saying something. Kong gets some enjoyable moments that might make parts of this movie worth your time, but Godzilla’s side of this story deserved better, and so did we.
Watch Godzilla vs. Kong in theaters and on HBO Max this Wednesday, March 31st, 2021.