A fairly common reaction to Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” since it kicked off with 2014’s “Godzilla” has been “less humans, more monsters.” If you reside in that camp, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the franchise’s fourth installment, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” delivers squarely on what its title promises.
Set after 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and decades after the events of “Kong: Skull Island,” director Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” opens with the latter monster (who ends up being more of the focus of the story). Kept within a giant dome on Skull Island where he is monitored by Monarch, an organization that studied so-called titans. Immediately, the enormous ape is portrayed as almost a romantic figure: he wakes up with the sunrise, the Bobby Vinton crooning his tune “Over the Mountain”. The lyrics, “over the mountain, a girl waits for me” feel especially apt for this character. Ever since his film debut in 1933, Kong has almost always been associated with a beautiful woman who brings out his human qualities, whether she sympathizes with him or not. In the case of this story, the woman is actually a little girl called Jia (Kaylee Hottle). Jia, the adopted daughter of Monarch anthropologist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), is deaf and finds a way to communicate with Kong using sign language. Kong has a violent streak, sure, but the primary perception of him is that he is docile, and rather sad. These scenes bring out the fact that Kong is really just looking for a home, outside the confines of the Monarch facility.
Compare this to how we first meet Godzilla in this movie. At the Pensacola facility of Apex Cybernetics, we find Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), the mysterious host of a podcast about titan conspiracy theories, snooping around, collecting data that suggests that Apex is up to no good. Suddenly, Godzilla—up to this point not known to target humans—attacks the facility. In contrast to Kong, Godzilla is portrayed as a villain who needs to be stopped. But as confused as all the experts are as to why Godzilla is behaving this way, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the daughter of Monarch scientists Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma who played a major role in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” believes there is a deeper meaning to what is happening, and she and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) team up with Bernie to get to the bottom of what Apex is doing that is provoking Godzilla.
Godzilla appears as both less sympathetic than Kong in this movie, as well as his previous film appearances. A lot of that likely has to do with the fact that we don’t see human characters connecting with him the way we do with Jia, Ilene, and Kong. “King of the Monsters” is required viewing to be familiar with the relationship Madison has with Godzilla, and why she cares so much about finding out what is wrong with him. But the moments that Kong gets that actually give him a personality are not afforded to Godzilla. The scenes with Madison in this film are driven by exposition, not character development. On top of that, several new characters are introduced on this side of the story, but they are just kind of there to provide some sort of basic explanation for why these monsters have got to fight. Demián Bichir and Eiza González are completed wasted in the roles of Apex CEO Walter Simmons and his daughter Maia. It’s great to see Brian Tyree Henry, bless him, but I can’t decide if his over-the-top portrayal of a gung-ho podcaster is too hilariously corny for this movie or not. That’s the weird line that these MonsterVerse movies for the most part have had to walk: they want to be serious on some level, but they’re also about giant monsters going to town. 2014’s “Godzilla” plays it the most straight of the bunch, but the others, this film included, don’t really strike a consistent tone. And while the previous films perhaps spent too much time on human characters, “Godzilla vs. Kong” includes them but doesn’t give them any development, personality, backstory, or reason to care about them, even as Godzilla and Kong casually wipe out entire cities in the middle of their spat.
But that may be a good thing if, as I mentioned at the top, you’re part of the majority who is really only here to watch two titans duking it out. The action scenes in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” whether they are between the titular monsters or one half of the duo fighting some other entity, are pretty well staged and entertaining. The action brings us to a variety of locations, from the open ocean to the natural beauty of Hollow Earth to the rainbow of neon lights in Hong Kong. The allusion to these titans’ origins, and the original feud between the likes of Kong and Godzilla, is one of the more interesting parts of the movie that I wish we got more of, but it’s great to see the focus in those moments shift away from the humans and toward the subjects these movies are really about. The bulk of these fight scenes are not viewed from the perspective of the humans, but rather of the monsters; it loses the sense of scale and awe, but we get a front row seat to these titans exerting the best of their abilities. The action scenes aren’t so long that they prompt the viewer to zone out in the middle of them, and there is just enough exposition between them to form the semblance of a story.
Technically, “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t a great film (and if you’re Team Godzilla, just know that this story prefers Kong). But it is a fun one, and it feels even more significant because due to the pandemic, it really has been a while since we’ve gotten to see a big blockbuster movie like this (even if we had to watch it at home, which isn’t quite the same experience as watching it in the theater, but we can get by in the meantime). This film could have probably gotten away with venturing further into camp territory, but despite the aforementioned issues with tone, it overall does take itself a little less seriously than its predecessors. The filmmakers seem to know that this movie is about giant monsters, know that that is what the people want to see, and that is exactly what they gave us.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until April 30. Runtime: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13.