The 2017 blockbuster Kong: Skull Island was set in the mid-1970s, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, while its new quasi-sequel, Godzilla vs. Kong, opens in the present day, with the ape visibly aggrieved and surrounded by all new characters. Kong is trapped inside a gargantuan biodome within his old island home, clearly unsatisfied by the lush but artificial environment. His displeasure is registered by roars and chucking trees like they’re darts until he’s calmed by a little indigenous girl named Jai (Kaylee Hottle), who approaches and connects with the skyscraper-sized primate as a scientist named Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) looks on.
Who are they? Why is Kong now in a containment dome? The movie, directed by Adam Wingard, makes quick work of exposition; they’re with Monarch and they’re afraid that Godzilla, the ultimate alpha predator, will rip Kong apart. The opening credits sequence that follows offers blips and shreds of information that recap the three prior movies in Legendary’s “Monsterverse” series and drop hints about characters we have yet to meet. The information dump sequence has become an expositional standard in the multi-kaiju franchise, which has been strung together with subplots about a prehistoric mystery and shadowy corporate conspiracy, all leading to the showdown promised in this one.
The context offered in these opening credits are heavy in backstory, and none of it is all that critical for new viewers to digest. It is actually somewhat refreshing, given the modern franchise tendency to require long binge-watches of prior installments in order to understand the story and character motivations.
GODZILLA VS. KONG ★★★
Instead, it’s almost easier to come in fresh. Godzilla vs. Kong has several subplots, each driven by distinct squads of characters that are almost all entirely new to the franchise, and most of the movie’s exposition involves mechanics and MacGuffins that drive the plot forward. For the most part, they seem more Jules Verne than modern sci-fi, with a Hollow Earth theory and hidden worlds deep beneath and tunneled through the sea.
Critically, both well-researched fans and newcomers will be equally satisfied when the two greatest and most iconic monsters in cinematic history square off in savage battles that threaten to remake the topography of the eastern hemisphere.
In all those ways, Godzilla vs. Kong, while still very much an American movie, channels the spirit of some of the best Japanese Godzilla movies released in the early-’60s, early ‘90s and 2000s. There have been four main eras of the Japanese franchise, each beginning with serious explorations of politics and culture and ending with campy battles royale. Though nothing will likely ever touch the original 1954 movie, a metaphor born out of trauma, the respective eras generally hit their sweet spots somewhere in the middle of their tonal transitions.
While Godzilla’s origins have remained mostly consistent throughout the franchise’s 30+ installments, the humans that drive the story have been replaced over and over again. Frequently cast as journalists and scientists, with military officials more recently added to the rotation, Toho Studios’ actors give fully committed performances in intricate plots loaded with fake science. Few Godzilla movies are actual sequels, so new installments would often just restart with all new characters and fantastical explanations for why the kaiju were invading earth or stomping on its cities. The viewer can always pay attention to winding plots and invest in the human drama in those movies, but they also have the option to just enjoy the quirky characters, monster battles and disastrous action.
Godzilla vs. Kong offers a similar deal: Appreciate the urgent and occasionally campy performances of a star-studded cast and embrace monster chaos. Brian Tyree Henry, playing an engineer for the mysterious company Apex who moonlights as a paranoid podcaster, is by far the human highlight. His dangerous road trip with two teenagers, played by Millie Bobby Brown (who returns from 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and Julian Tennison, is even better. They chase after Godzilla and stumble into some of the most mind-tilting sequences, peppering the mayhem with comedy.
It’s a logical ending. This series has evolved tonally in much the same manner as the Japanese iterations. It kicked off with 2014’s Godzilla, the serious and operatic American analog to the 1954 debut, and further expanded the 2017 Kong movie and the battle royale Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The origins of this film’s titular monsters have been explored and several international cities have now been leveled. There is no head fake or tease, no budget-driven reversal that delays the expensive action sequences for as long as possible. The plot is built to deliver on the promise of the title, which it does with aplomb.
It’s hard not to feel a bit exhausted with CGI-fueled spectacles, especially when viewed, as they have been for the past year, almost exclusively on televisions instead of the massive IMAX screens for which they were made and produced. And for long-time Godzilla fans, there is an ever-present nostalgia for big rubber suits that crush extravagant miniature cities in inventive close-up and composite shots filled with controlled explosions and exaggerated screams of terror. And yet, the big battles of Godzilla vs. Kong are still immensely satisfying, while the vast sci-fi vistas are some of the most creative and wondrous the franchise has produced in a very long time.
The monsters’ first showdown, highlighted in the trailer for the film, has them throw down at sea, with Godzilla fighting to sink the aircraft carrier upon which Kong is being transported to the United States. Even if it’s all pixels, it’s a thrill to watch them slug one another, wreck other boats, and bat ill-advised fighter jets out of the sky. With Ilene and Jia’s lives hanging in the balance, there are enough stakes to make it more than an exercise in sheer chaos, even if we don’t know them all that well.
Once again, no one knows why Godzilla is acting out—this is a recurring theme in these movies, as panicky authorities continue to forget that the big atomic fire-breathing guardian has their best interests at heart. Kong, having been scaled up, is posited as humanity’s only shot at stopping the ancient beast. Neither are simply creatures of mass destruction, and Kong in particular is given a resonant goal that also renders the backstories of human characters less important.
Before this, Godzilla and Kong have only squared off once, in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, which featured a Toho-ized version of the great ape who looked as if he’d worn his snout out with cocaine. For Japanese viewers, it was a satire on TV news and entertainment culture in the bustling post-war recovery, but without that context, while beloved today, it’s not exactly an untouchable classic or all that high bar to top. Most viewers won’t know that, but they also won’t hear protests from fans calling this one inferior to the “original.”
Further tussles between today’s Godzilla and Kong, including a classic city-crunching bout at the movie’s climax, are also thrilling. The monsters are clearly smart enough at this point to strategize their attacks, making them something like ultra-sized ultimate fighting matches. It satisfies a deep-seated desire, watching these storied cultural ambassadors, cinematic icons and otherworldly creatures of mass destruction pound the snot out of one another, while ultimately fighting for more than primal glory (we won’t spoil the big twist). Whether the Legendary franchise continues after this is unclear—it might just depend on the streaming numbers and box office—but if not, it’s a worthy finale.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.
Godzilla vs. Kong will be available to stream on HBO Max March 31