What Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment's fresh spin on Godzilla's Monsterverse series lacked - character development, coherent plots, efficient use of its stacked casts - it more than made up for in kaiju-punching. Gareth Edwards' 'Godzilla' nailed the immense sense of scale of its titular beastie, but was too murky and serious. 'Kong: Skull Island' was brighter and zippier, but very dumb. 'Godzilla II: King of the Monsters' wasn't good, but it made Godzilla and Mothra look cool as hell against some vivid, lightning-lit skies. All of these films had their pros, but they came with a lot of cons attached.
Directed by Adam Wingard, 'Godzilla vs. Kong' has been in development in one form or another for years, as Legendary carefully maneuvered to create a rich, detailed cinematic universe in which a radioactive iguana could breathe nuclear lightning on a very tall monkey. The titular stars of 'Godzilla vs. Kong' are alternately painterly and lifelike, and their movements are expressive enough to convey personality even underwater. When they fight each other (and other skyscraper-sized monsters) and scream in triumph over the smoking ruins of various world capitals, it's difficult not to fist-pump and smile a little.
Of course, there are humans there too, so someone can go, "Oh, he's winning!" whenever one of the big animals lands an especially good suplex or kick. Millie Bobby Brown reprises her shapeless role as Madison Russell from 'Godzilla II: King of the Monsters', and leads a typically overqualified cast. Godzilla, last seen saving the planet from the three-headed dragon Ghidorah, has been on the rampage and Madison believes there is a reason for the lizard's erratic behaviour, suspecting a conspiracy formulated by the Apex Corporation. She decides to investigate with her chum, Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison, 'Deadpool 2', 'Hunt For The Wilderpeople'), and a conspiracy theorist podcaster, Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, 'Widows').
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Meanwhile, a former Monarch geologist, Dr Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård, 'The Kill Team'), is recruited by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir, 'The Nun'), an Elon Musk-style billionaire, and his daughter Maia (Eiza González, 'Bloodshot'), to travel deep into the centre of the planet and harvest a newly-discovered energy source.
In order to map a path, Lind needs a Titan - one of the gigantic creatures he believes was birthed in this "Hollow Earth" - to act as a homing pigeon. He approaches Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall, 'A Rainy Day in New York', who effortlessly delivers the film's most ridiculous exposition with straight-faced gravitus), the scientist in charge of monitoring Kong, who is moping around in a huge man-made dome following the off-screen destruction of Skull Island. Andrews' adopted daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has a special bond with this chaotic chimp.
Look, the story is utter nonsense. Eventually, Godzilla jumps out of the water, fists start flying, and it becomes clear that this is just a movie about a big ape whacking a big lizard with a big axe and everything else is mostly irrelevant. That isn't a criticism. It's incredibly entertaining stuff.
While 'You're Next' and 'The Guest' were prime examples of witty, kitsch horror that riffed on the lower-budget movies of the '80s, Adam Wingard's 'The Blair Witch Project' and 'Death Note' were disappointing ventures into moderately scaled filmmaking. Not that these negative experiences are in evidence: Wingard makes the leap to the majors with amazing confidence, adapting the retro influences of his earlier films to a much larger scale.
Although the tree-in-the-mouth scene from the original 'King Kong vs. Godzilla' gets a shout-out, Wingard's true source of inspiration appears not to be Toho's vast library of kaiju flicks, but the action movies of the '80s. 'Godzilla vs. Kong' blends bombastic excess and deadpan silliness in a way that deliberately riffs on the films of the three great Johns: Carpenter, McTiernan and Milius. Kong jumps and takes damage like Bruce Willis in 'Die Hard', uncovers an ancient tomb ala. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Conan the Barbarian', and a duel involving multi-coloured laser beams recalls 'Big Trouble in Little China.' Kong is a hulking Snake Plissken from 'Escape From New York,' conscripted to extract top-secret material from a dangerous location. There's a big nod towards Guillermo del Toro's similarly themed 'Pacific Rim', too.
This is a movie where an enormous gorilla finds a magical axe and then sits regally on an equally enormous throne of fossilised rock - that is, until an angry lizard burns a hole through the streets of Hong Kong and all the way to the Earth's inner core, simply to yell at him.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about 'Godzilla vs. Kong' is that this unabashedly bonkers film never takes itself too seriously. This is a movie where an enormous gorilla finds a magical axe and then sits regally on an equally enormous throne of fossilised rock - that is, until a big grumpy lizard burns a hole through the streets of Hong Kong and all the way to the Earth's inner core, simply to yell at him.
Even the musical choices are a delight. Kong is introduced, scratching his arse in the jungle, while a mellow country and western-style ballad plays in the background (the film is sprinkled with amusingly-soundtracked moments for our hairy protagonist). Elsewhere, Junkie XL reworks Godzilla's theme into a crunchy, pumped-up fight tune and weaves in some catchy synthesizer heaven in the vein of John Carpenter. It reminds the audience that while what we are seeing might seem dramatic, it's supposed to be fun.
In essence, Wingard has finally perfected the Monsterverse formula by drawing on the best aspects of the films that preceded his: 'Godzilla vs. Kong' is exciting, fast-moving, funny, silly, strange and, most importantly, self-aware. The least successful flavour in this series has been the family drama, but this film has just enough moments with the humans without distracting from the monsters, as Wingard crosscuts among cities and supporting players, staging panoramas of mass destruction.
The director also proves himself a superb purveyor of eye candy, staging several instantly memorable scenes, like a nautical brawl on the Tasman Sea, a huge simian leaping into zero gravity and flying through an asteroid belt, and a desperate struggle amongst neon-lit skyscapers that's shot as if the colossal combatants were wearing bodymount cameras. The action is completely legible (unlike Paul W. S. Anderson's headache-inducing 'Monster Hunter'), and the compositions are often beautiful, particularly the alien jungle of Hollow Earth.
Wingard returns to the sheer size difference between people and kaiju that was so prominent in Edwards' 'Godzilla' but had disappeared by the time 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters' rolled around. Kong and Godzilla are marvels of state-of-the-art craftsmanship, both looking bigger and buffer than they ever have before, shaking the whole theatre with their bellows. If Kong is a barbarian anti-hero or grizzled tough guy, then Godzilla is more of a mythological wonder by way of an unstoppable horror movie villain like Jason Voorhees - what Ken Watanabe's gravely philosophical scientist in the first film described as an "alpha predator."
As pure popcorn entertainment and the culmination of the Monsterverse saga, 'Godzilla vs. Kong' delivers the goods in an unexpectedly big way. This film is essential viewing for those who might like to watch a lizard punch an ape.