By Daniel Lammin
28th March 2024

The MonsterVerse franchise has to be the strangest of all the current film franchises. Beginning in 2014 with Gareth Edwards' 'Godzilla', one of the finest blockbusters of the last decade, the series has since become an erratic mess, swinging wildly in terms of tone and quality. 'Kong: Skull Island' (2017) introduced King Kong into the series with an uneven yet wildly fun 70s throwback vibe, suggesting the concept of a shared cinematic universe of famous movie monster titans might work. The follow-up to the first Godzilla film, 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters' (2019), dropped the quality of the series like a boulder into the Mariana Trench, a scattered hodgepodge of a film that took itself way too seriously and tried to cram way too much in. Surprisingly, the most preposterous of the entries at this point, 'Godzilla vs. Kong' (2021), turned out to be a lot of fun, mostly because it embraced how dumb its concept was. It felt like the series might have finally found its feet. If it wasn't going to maintain the quality Edwards set with the first film, it might as well give the audience what they want (big monsters smashing stuff) and have a blast doing it.

This made me cautiously optimistic about 'Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire'. I mean, could there be a dumber title? My hope (and the hope of other friends I spoke to) was that director Adam Wingard would build on the tone he'd established with 'Godzilla vs. Kong' and make 'The New Empire' even bigger, even dumber and even more fun. Unfortunately, the film itself is none of those things.

Three narratives are set in motion at the start of 'The New Empire'. The team at Monarch have started detecting unusual electromagnetic pulses coming from Hollow Earth (Kong's kingdom), and Kong researcher Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall, 'The Prestige') is worried that they might be affecting her adopted daughter, the Skull Island native Jia (Kaylee Hottle) who lived with Kong as a child but is now a teenager, unsure of where she fits in the world. Along with monster vet Trapper (Dan Stevens, 'The Guest') and reuniting with podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, 'If Beale Street Could Talk'), Ilene and Jia go down to Hollow Earth to investigate. Also of concern to Monarch is the erratic behaviour of Godzilla, who is travelling around the earth consuming as much radioactive energy as he can, as if he might be preparing for something (possibly also due to the electromagnetic pulses). And down in Hollow Earth, the perpetually lonely Kong finds a newly opened shaft down to a subterranean level of Hollow Earth. To his surprise, there is another race of large apes down there, but they're not quite what he expects. As each of these story arcs begin to converge, it becomes clear that these events seem to be related, all to an ancient legend that Godzilla, at some point, had suppressed some vicious force below Hollow Earth that is threatening to escape.


Very soon into 'The New Empire', it's obvious that the franchise has shifted its tone back to that of 'King of the Monsters', a pompousness attempting to pull together a messy story with too many elements at play. Even though the film barely runs for two hours, it feels like it takes a long time to cover all this ground before we even come to the central conflict, and once that moment finally comes, you start to wonder why all that build-up was necessary in the first place. It isn't that the three narrative threads are hard to follow - there's barely enough substance to make them feel full in the first place - but that so much of the film relies on telling us the action rather than showing. The Monarch storyline exists entirely to explain the other two as well as its own, so that the human characters go from being purely reactionary (as they have been with the last two films) to simply functionary. Their job is to deliver clunky, badly written exposition that, even in the hands of actors as exemplary as Hall and Tyree Henry, still manages to sound like slop. You can see Hall trying so hard to make it work, and Stevens and Tyree Henry are at least imbuing the film with some sort of comic relief, but it's hard to care about any of these characters when the film doesn't care much about them either. Poor Kaylee Hottle is pretty much asked to stand there and look sad most of the time with this disappointed look on her face, and though she becomes central to the action in the final act, it's too little too late.

The other problem with the film's reliance on dialogue-driven exposition is that, for the Kong and Godzilla storylines, it's pretty much unnecessary. In the case of Kong, the dramatic action is pretty self-explanatory, and the better moments of the film come when Kong is in direct conflict with the film's new Big Bad. The Godzilla storyline, by contrast, really highlights the issue with having these two characters now tied together in this franchise. Kong is emotional, almost human, and his storyline is imbued with pathos, his sadness at being alone and his dream of finding others like him. Godzilla, love him as I do, is just a big lizard defending his territory. Not only does he not really have an emotional inner life, it feels weird whenever they attempt to give him one. 'Godzilla vs. Kong' worked because it pitted these two contrasting personalities directly against each other. In 'The New Empire', with Godzilla not emotionally involved in the action, he becomes (like the human characters) purely functional. The film spends less time with him mostly because it really doesn't seem to know what to do with him (even getting him and Kong to work together takes external mediation), and what they give him to do is just clomp around and break things. With Kong in these films, they will only ever be Kong's film, leaving Godzilla as an afterthought, and after the surprise brilliance of 'Godzilla Minus One' last year, this feels especially egregious.

It all might be okay if the execution of the film had worked, much as was the case with 'Godzilla' and 'Kong: Skull Island', but Wingard's creative choices with 'The New Empire' just exacerbate the issues. The camera never stops moving, never letting a shot sit long enough so we can take in the scale of what we are seeing. It's also framed so tight on the characters, particularly Kong, that you wonder whether Wingard is trying to make this the MonsterVerse aesthetic equivalent of 'Son of Saul'. It's also strangely out of focus at the edge of many of the shots, emphasising the action in the centre of the frame but dulling the periphery vision of the environments around them. The chaos of the cinematography is made worse by the frantic, non-stop editing, which when combined with a camera that never stops moving, makes the film a visually exhausting watch. This also impacts the visual effects, which struggle to keep up with the rhythm of the film. Great visual effects are not just down to the quality of the effects themselves but how they are used, and here the work of these artists is just used to add to the already headache-inducing chaos. A great score could tie all this together, but here the score is so scattered and nondescript as to practically feel non-existent.

Unless they can come up with something fresh for where this franchise can go, then maybe it’s time to let these iterations of Godzilla and King Kong out to pasture.

The biggest problem though is that Wingard can't decide on what tone he wants the film to be. Is it comedic? Is it epic? There's certainly no indication that it thinks any of this is as dumb or stupid as it is, meaning the film is never as enjoyably dumb or stupid as it should be. This tonal issue is there in Rebecca Hall and Brian Tyree Henry's performances, two actors that have great chemistry together but feel like they're in two different films. The flashes of buddy comedy between Tyree Henry and Stevens in particular feel completely out of place against the sincerity Hall and Hottle have to bring, and contribute almost nothing to the central action. When something does happen, such as an interminable sequence almost two-thirds into the film where Ilene outlines the entire conflict of the film as communicated through the most basic hieroglyphs you've ever seen in your life, their job is just to go "wow" and ask necessary questions for the plot to advance. And rather than Wingard's direction finding a way to tie all these disparate elements together, he just seems to structure the film around an "And Then" rhythm, the film running to get to the next bit without dealing with whatever has just happened. In the end, the only thing that feels certain is that you've just had a film yell at you for two hours without actually saying or doing anything worth yelling at you about.

If this is the direction this series wants to go - taking these big silly stories about giant bugs and giant lizards and giant monkeys beating each other up as serious pieces of blockbuster cinema rather than the fun spectacles that they are - then this series doesn't seem to have much of a future. Even in their origins, Kong and Godzilla meant something. Kong reflected our inhumanity back at us. At his best moments, Godzilla is a walking metaphor for whatever scares the shit out of us as a society. Reducing them to the equivalent of monster superheroes might be a lark for one film, but they do not have the dramatic action to carry an entire franchise, especially when they're tied together at the narrative hip. The chaos of 'The New Empire' suggests that the MonsterVerse is now clutching at straws to know what to do next, both with these iconic monsters and the others that make cameos in this film (there's a tremendous Deux Ex Machina pun that I could make out of someone who pops up in the final battle, but that would be spoiling a surprise, so give me some credit for self control). Even the title turns out to be nonsense. What new empire? Empire where? With who? In the end, they just go back to their respective territories and carry on as normal. The title of the film, everything about the marketing, is trying to make an event out of a film without an event. There are two action set pieces that are quite impressive (where thankfully no one is bloody talking), but that's not enough to justify this film or, frankly, any further films. Warner Bros. and Legendary are like Sisyphus pushing the MonsterVerse boulder up the hill, only for it to roll down again. It might take a different route down each time, but it's still rolling down, and they still insist on rolling it back up again.

Unless they can come up with something fresh for where this franchise can go (and the Monarch TV series suggested that there might still be something left if they think outside of the box), then maybe it's time to let these iterations of Godzilla and King Kong out to pasture. Toho in Japan seems to know what they're doing with Godzilla at the moment, and Kong could probably do with a rest until someone else thinks of a way to reinterpret the 1933 film. They certainly don't seem to have much enthusiasm to keep going in the MonsterVerse.

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