‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire’ Review: Tag-Team Monster Wrestling

This is a monster movie for monster-movie fans and nothing more. But hardly 10 minutes goes by without monster action.

Godzilla and Kong are no longer rivals in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary

This past winter, writer/director Takashi Yamazaki and Japanese studio Toho unveiled Godzilla Minus One, a rich, character-driven parable about a community rediscovering their self-worth after a period of crushing guilt and shame. It’s a genuine pop masterpiece, and probably the best movie ever to feature a giant radioactive lizard. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is nothing like Godzilla Minus One, nor does it aspire to be. This is the fifth big screen entry in WB and Legendary’s MonsterVerse, a totally silly smorgasbord of visual effects and cheesy jokes for children. It’s also a lot of fun, provided that you’re capable of shutting down your left brain and emotionally connecting with a CGI ape. Godzilla x Kong abandons any pretense of being a story about human beings and lets the giant monsters do their thing, and on that level, it absolutely works.

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GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Dan Stevens, Kaylee Hottle, Alex Ferns, Fala Chen
Running time: 115 mins.


Godzilla x Kong picks up years after 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong and reunites some of the MonsterVerse’s recurring cast, but don’t worry, nobody expects you to remember who they are or what they did in the last installment. Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, and Kaylee Hottle’s extremely slight characters each get a fresh introduction, and we get acquainted with a new addition, a kaiju veterinarian played by Dan Stevens and accompanied at all times by a cheesy ‘80s rock soundtrack for some reason. As in previous MonsterVerse projects (save for the surprisingly good streaming series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters), it is virtually impossible to care about any of these people. Unlike in those installments, however, we aren’t really asked to. The human ensemble is here to provide exposition and cringy comic relief, annunciating the finer points of a plot that doesn’t really require explanation. This is a wrestling event, and they’re the commentary team.

The real star of our show is Kong, the 300-foot-tall ape that lost the fight but won the night back in Godzilla vs. Kong. The giant gorilla has made a new home for himself on the interior surface of the hollow Earth, a lush tropical world where it’s perpetually golden hour despite receiving no actual sunlight. Kong is safe and free, but alone, believing that he is the last of his kind. But when Kong stumbles across more of his own, he unwittingly enables a meaner, nastier ape to threaten the delicate balance between human and Titan. His only hope may be to enlist the aid of his greatest rival, the reigning King of Monsters, Godzilla.

GxK features a variety of monster fights, as Kong and Godzilla embark on separate quests before their promised tag team main event. We’ve got a giant spider, a giant sea serpent, some dinosaur-looking beasties, and a small army of apes, all coming to a toy store near you. Throughout the 115-minute runtime, it is rare to come across a 10-minute stretch without any monster action, and these intervals only get shorter as the film progresses. While the human cast gets some business to do between those action sequences, it’s really Kong who moves the plot and emotion of the story forward. He also gets most of the movie’s laughs. A shrug, a snort, or a sudden burst of violence from the big ape is consistently much funnier than any of the humans’ half-assed quips. One must credit the animation team for making Kong the film’s most lifelike character.

What’s lost from setting so much of the action away from human civilization is the sense of scale. The kingdom of Hollow Earth is made of cavernous habitats that are appropriately sized for their gargantuan residents. Without puny humans to trample, it basically stops mattering that these apes are the size of skyscrapers, and when it comes to ape-on-ape violence, GxK can’t touch the Shakespearean drama of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Once the action returns to a fragile metropolis, there’s still not much gravity to it, since there is no sense of the human toll to the destruction left in its wake, but such a thing would be unwelcome here. This is an Arcade Mode monster movie. If you want to feel something other than childish glee, select a different film.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is not recommended for anyone who would not ordinarily buy a ticket to see something called “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.”  At the same time, I can’t imagine someone who is excited by that title, the trailer, or the big Times Square billboard walking away disappointed. It’s great when a movie in a typically silly genre surprises you with profundity and sincerity. After all, the Godzilla series began as a heartfelt political allegory. More often, however, kaiju movies from either side of the Pacific are playdates, nothing more, and that’s fine. This is a movie where a giant gorilla wielding a bullwhip made from a dinosaur’s spine fights a giant gorilla wearing a mechanical battle gauntlet on his fist. What more do you want?


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

 

‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire’ Review: Tag-Team Monster Wrestling