Written by Sam Niles
At less than two hours, Godzilla Vs. Kong is surprisingly brisk. There’s not an ounce of fat to be trimmed off this movie. We’re given an opening on Skull Island, showing Kong’s morning routine and relationship with the deaf Jia (Kaylee Hottle) to the tune of “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea.” But even this casual scene comes with a reveal: that this view is a holographic farce on what remains of the real Skull Island, run by Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). Kong will soon grow too big for it, but as soon as the alpha ape leaves, opposing alpha titan Godzilla “will come for him.”
This is a problem. Because after an attack on Apex Cybernetics, humanity no longer sees Godzilla as its savior. This is a narrative Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and undercover conspiracy theorist, Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) question: they don’t trust the humanitarian front Apex puts on, and the trio work to uncover what the company is up to.
But while they investigate the corporation, Apex’s humanitarian front has its uses for our other heroes. Searching for a renewable power source at the center of the Earth, they enlist the help of Ilene and geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), who can use Kong to traverse the hollow earth and save humanity. Of course, this requires taking Kong from Skull Island. And when Ilene said “Godzilla will come for him”, she wasn’t bluffing.
The humans have been a supposed conundrum for the Monsterverse films. We don’t watch them for the humans, but we need the humans to watch them. In its narrative efficiency, this is a conundrum Godzilla vs. Kong sidesteps this issue.
The film knows these characters are our conduit to the world of the titans. It doesn’t waste our time establishing scenes outside that world. We don’t see them making breakfast or flirting with a coworker before they go off to handle monster stuff. They’re just thrown right into the monster stuff, and the script uses their place in the world as means of expressing characterization. The best example is our introduction to newcomer Bernie, who uses his wits and neurotic distrust of the government to sneak his way around Apex Cybernetics. The scene balances comedy, characterization and narrative and keeps the film moving.
Using the humans as a conduit isn’t restricted to dialogue either, and their place in the action makes for some extraordinary moments. An especially cool bit (possibly the highlight of the movie) follows a hovercraft through the climactic battle. It’s a disorienting sequence where the craft evades Kong, collapsing buildings, Godzilla’s breath, and eventually Godzilla himself. The camera spirals and the sound design frightens as the craft flows from one threat to the next.
Director Adam Wingard’s camera during the action is especially noteworthy. In keeping with the script, the titular battles are shot with the energy and the relative grounding you’d expect from modern action films, but with an appropriate artificiality to their movement. Unlike, say, the Lion King remake, which was “shot” with virtual cameras but in a way that convinced the audience of realism, Godzilla vs. Kong embraces the unreality of its computer generated camera. It has a freedom associated with a handheld camera and a fluidity that is otherwise impossible, capturing a viscerality and otherworldly grandeur. It’s perfect for the intensity and scale of the two behemoths.
Their strengths and weaknesses are also wholly embraced. For instance, I was worried Kong’s furry flesh would be impossibly resistant to Godzilla’s breath, or that Godzilla would have unreasonable speed to keep up with Kong. But the film doesn’t want a totally level field, and uses their discrepancies to shake up the battles, giving each moments to shine and forcing them to improvise against new difficulties. Different environments, troubles, and their own traits add variety to what could have easily been “Godzilla punches, then Kong punches.”
As fun and joyously silly as the movie is, as adolescent as the pleasures it incites are, Godzilla vs. Kong is also awe-inspiring. Yes, monsters fight, and if you’re able to see this in theaters, there could be cheering (I’ve seen it twice on HBO Max and intend to see it in theaters at least once). But the film understands that the underlying imagination that inspires this adolescent fantasy can also be a source of wonder. There’s a sense of exploration, of otherworldliness. The film calls back to Jaws, professional wrestling, and 2001: A Space Odyssey with equal passion.
Godzilla Vs. Kong is simply, unashamedly, itself, and is worth seeing however you’re able.