Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment's latest spin on Godzilla's Monsterverse series may have been missing things like three-dimensional characters and coherent plots, but it more than made up for that stuff in terms of kaiju fights. 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 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 slowly created a complex cinematic universe in which a radioactive iguana could spew nuclear lightning on a tall monkey. The titular stars of 'Godzilla vs. Kong' are obviously expensive CGI but still lifelike enough that their movements can convey personality even underwater. When they punch each other (and other skyscraper-sized monsters) and howl in triumph over the ruins of various world capitals, it's hard not to smile a little.
Of course, there are humans there too, so someone can exclaim "Watch out!" whenever one big animals suplexs another big animal on to an aircraft carrier. Millie Bobby Brown reprises her barely sketched 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 a conspiracy formulated by the Apex Corporation is behind the lizard's erratic behaviour. She decides to investigate with her buddy, 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. Our hairy hero 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, a wrestling match ensues, and it becomes clear that this is just a movie about a big ape whacking a big lizard with a magical axe. Everything else is mostly irrelevant, but that isn't a criticism. It's the key strength of the film.
While 'You're Next' and 'The Guest' cleverly riffed on the lower-budget movies of the '80s, Adam Wingard's 'The Blair Witch Project' and 'Death Note' were disappointing ventures into mid-tier filmmaking. Not that these negative experiences are in evidence: Wingard handles his first mega-budget with amazing confidence, digging into his bag of retro influences and applying them on 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 discovers a subterranean temple and then sits regally on an 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, just to yell angrily 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 discovers a subterranean temple and then sits regally on an 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, just to yell angrily 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.
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 enough moments with the humans without distracting from the monsters, as he crosscuts among cities and supporting players.
Wingard stages several instantly memorable action 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.
I enjoyed the return 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 more swole than they ever have before, making the whole theatre tremble with their bellows. If Kong is a barbaric 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 (unlikely) finale of the Monsterverse saga, 'Godzilla vs. Kong' delivers the goods in an unexpectedly big way. For those who might like to watch a lizard punch on with an ape, this film is essential viewing.