Producers: Mary Parent, Alex Garcia, Eric McLeod, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull and Brian Rogers Director: Adam Wingard Screenplay: Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle, Lance Reddick, Hakeen Kae-Kazim and Ronny Chieng Distributors: Warner Bros. and HBO Max
Not since Sylvester Stallone and Mr. T met in the boxing ring in “Rocky III” has there been such a titanic battle between star behemoths as the one announced in the title of Adam Wingard’s movie. Despite his size, roar and imposing teeth, King Kong is the Rocky-like underdog in the match, and he endures the same sort of beating his human counterpart took, including not just a dislocated shoulder he must painfully snap back into place but a near-death experience. Indeed, he has to be literally pulled back from the brink by what amounts to a giant-sized defibrillator provided by one of his human allies. (Readers, be advised of spoilers in the following paraphrase of the plot!)
Anyway, though the two famed creatures face off in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (as they already did in the chintzier but more amusing “King Kong vs. Godzilla” back in 1963), the real monster here is neither the prehistoric lizard nor the giant gorilla, but—you guessed it—a megalomaniacal businessman. He’s Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), the head of an outfit called Apex Cybernetics, who firmly believes that man must be at the top of the food chain and is willing to use his company’s technical wizardry to assure he remains so.
His machinations, in fact, lead to an initial confrontation with Godzilla, who’s roused from his slumber to attack the company’s plant in Pensacola. That prompts him to seek out scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) to lead an expedition to Hollow Earth, the center of the globe that’s theorized as the birthplace of those enormous ancient entities called Titans.
Meanwhile Kong is kept isolated on Skull Island in a security dome under the watchful gaze of Irene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the representative of the peacekeeping Monarch organization, who sees danger in the age-old hostility between him and the Titans. Kong is heavily anthropomorphized here, especially in terms of his friendly relationship with Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf girl and last of the Iwi people, who can communicate with him via sign language.
Kong is commandeered to become an integral part of Lind’s expedition, which Andrews and Jai also join, as does Simmons’ arrogant daughter Maya (Eiza González), who’s obviously up to no good.
Meanwhile Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the daughter of Mark (Kyle Chandler), a Monarch officer, has been persuaded of the nefariousness of the Apex company by the podcasts of conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry). On the basis of her experience in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” she believes that Godzilla is no enemy of man, and along with her dorky friend Josh (Julian Dennison), tracks down Hayes.
The trio then proceed to Apex and eventually wind up at the company headquarters in Hong Kong, where Simmons and his right hand man Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri) are engaged in an experiment to advance his grandiose ambitions through the fabrication of the dreaded Mechagodzilla, a creature known to followers of the Japanese “Godzilla” franchise that’s flourished since the big guy first emerged from the ocean in 1954. (Yes, there actually are diehard fans of the seemingly endless parade of pictures featuring actors in rubber suits trashing flimsy models of cities.)
It’s exhausting to touch on all these plotlines, but far more so to watch them intersect on the screen, especially because of the glut of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook applied as purported explanation in the boring sequences when the loquacious human characters supplant the thankfully non-verbal titular leads. But suffice it to say that everything culminates in the promised bout in Hong Kong (happily evacuated, but with the multi-colored building lights all left on for carnival-like visual effect), where Godzilla and Kong initially face off against one another but then, reconciled by little Jai, join forces against Mechagodzilla, nodding sagely in a sign of respect for each other as the city smolders behind them.
The filmmakers had managed a preliminary fracas for the two earlier in the picture, when Kong was being transported by ship to the entrance to Hollow Earth, and had choreographed some skirmishes for Kong in Hollow Earth against a few lingering Titans as he took possession of his ancestral throne room and the high-powered battle-axe that went with it. But though Kong’s first encounter with Godzilla is an extravagant waterlogged affair, the makers hold most of their fire until the final brawl, which goes on and on, with multiple instances of victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat.
In these sequences, as well as the many others which they dominate, both Kong and Godzilla are portrayed as worthy of sympathy. The effort doesn’t really take in the latter instance; it’s difficult to humanize a giant lizard to any extent, and Godzilla remains, even at his best moments (and despite Madison’s assurances that he’s a good guy), a pretty ugly and unlovable dude. By contrast so much time is given over to Kong’s loneliness and sadness—and his gentleness with Jia—that he becomes something like the protagonist in a weepy melodrama, except of course when he roars and cuts loose in battle. Even still, despite the exquisite care given to his visual realization by the special effects team, the big fella still lacks the soulfulness he had, however clunky the stop-motion animation, in Willis O’Brien’s 1933 incarnation.
As for the humans, the less said the better. The characters are no more than one-note sketches, some shrill (Madison) or obnoxiously unfunny (Bernie and Josh), others snidely nasty (Walter and Maya) or simpering (Jia), but most just blandly boring (Nathan, Irene, Mark). A few of the actors, like Bichir, seem to be having a good time playing the stereotypes, but the majority just go through the predictable paces without much effort, apart from the purely physical need to run, scream and gasp. It doesn’t help, of course, that they’re so often trying to look awestruck as they stare, bug-eyed, into green screens where the animated action will be inserted later. That’s not quite so obvious here as it was, for example, in Robert Wise’s original “Star Trek” movie from 1979, but it’s still apparent.
Of course, “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t intended to be a genuine movie as much as an immersive experience, the cinematic equivalent of a splashy amusement park ride, and on that basis it’s fairly effective popcorn-ready, juvenile nonsense. Wingard and editor Josh Schaeffer keep things moving briskly, aiming to overwhelm the illogic with speed, and production designers Owen Paterson and Thomas S. Hammock give things a comic-book gloss. Ben Seresin’s cinematography is generally fine too, although he can’t do anything with the dark, murky look of many of the CGI fight scenes, while Tom Holkenborg soaks the visuals in a droning music score.
In the end, though, this is just another of those would-be Hollywood blockbusters that’s no more than a cheesy B-movie beefed up with overblown, expensive effects, and though it mercifully avoids being dragged out to epic length, you still might emerge from it thinking that the title should be expanded to “Godzilla vs. Kong vs. the Patience of the Audience.”