It’s all been leading up to this: the ultimate monster mash — or clash of the titans — “Godzilla vs. Kong.”
Enticing as an epic slugfest between two of cinema’s most famous demolition experts may sound, there’s really no way to pretend that King of the Monsters and once-and-future-king Kong are evenly matched. A radiation-powered freak of nature, Godzilla has missile-proof skin and atomic breath, whereas his relatively sensitive adversary is essentially a big gorilla. Unlike the all-but-indestructible Godzilla, Kong can feel, bleed and be easily sedated. These two aren’t even supposed to be the same size, although the movie presents them as such — but then, scale has rarely been a sticking point in a series that once saw a man in a rubber suit stomping through shoulder-high power lines.
The way director Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”) figures it, if you have time to think about such things during “Godzilla vs. Kong,” he’s not doing his job correctly. The director intends for you to be impressed, but also to care about these non-speaking characters (but especially Kong, the obvious underdog here). Meanwhile, the human ensemble is made up mostly of conspiracy quacks and pseudo-science hacks, which may resonate in a world spun by QAnon-sense. Still, it’s a relief when their virtual co-stars’ thunderous roars drown out the mumbo-jumbo dialogue. Eyes wide, brains off, ears bleeding — that’s how Wingard wants his audience.
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When Toho Studios unleashed Godzilla on the world in 1954, the raging kaiju spawned sequel upon sequel across several different cycles, as the giant lizard attacked first cities and then other mutant creatures in a succession of showdowns having little consistency to the overarching mythology. Working with Warner Bros., Legendary has been more strategic in laying the groundwork for its so-called MonsterVerse, releasing a Kong reboot (“Skull Island”) with the express intent of pitting the ape against Godzilla in a future blockbuster.
Now, not even the coronavirus can stop these two magnificent beasts from wreaking beautiful mayhem, resulting in some of the most photogenic destruction this side of Michael Bay. Whether it’s staging a rumpus on the high seas or a donnybrook in downtown Hong Kong, Wingard has the vision to deliver iconic fight scenes in a movie with multiple surprises up its sleeve (including another classic opponent to unite the rivals), while mercifully clocking in at under two hours.
The box office (or lack thereof) should make apparent just how drastically the pandemic has hobbled the tentpole business, since this franchise capper — which pays off elements established across three previous films — was poised to become one of Hollywood’s all-time-highest grossers. Warner will release the behemoth simultaneously in theaters and to HBO Max subscribers, although this kind of spectacle begs for the big screen, so buy a projector and beam it on the side of a barn if you can’t safely make it to the megaplex.
The movie opens on Skull Island, where Kong is being kept contained by Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). The enormous brute has all but adopted a deaf girl, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), which combined with his evolving use of tools, show more smarts than his captors realize. Halfway around the world, crackpot podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) promises to expose shady secrets at Apex Industries just as Godzilla makes his first appearance, rising from the sea to attack the robotics research facility.
What’s not clear about the incident is whether the rest of civilization has anything to fear from Godzilla, who seems to have a special beef with Apex boss Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), one of those greedy weapons manufacturers the movies imagine being a tantrum away from triggering global annihilation. In Godzilla’s prior appearance, 2019’s loud and overcrowded “King of the Monsters,” the lizard served as a positive force of supernatural pest control, ridding the planet of unwanted predators. But Walter doesn’t see it that way. Humans aren’t comfortable anywhere but the top of the food chain, and Apex intends to live up to its name.
Clearly, Walter’s plan is to build something more powerful (classic Godzilla fans can no doubt put two and two together). To pull that off, he enlists nut-job professor Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a champion of the “hollow Earth” theory that dinosaurs didn’t go extinct — they just went underground. Their cuckoo mission to reach the earth’s core requires shipping Kong to Antarctica, where he can lead them to this subterranean realm and what Ilene describes as “a power beyond our understanding.” That’s more than enough plot for one movie, especially since audiences didn’t sign up for a Jules Verne adventure, but a beastly battle royal.
From the filmmakers’ point of view, the idea is to get Kong out on the open ocean, chained to a heavily armed carrier, so that he and Godzilla can ring in their first round. In this setting, the helmer has 360-degree access to his combatants, who obediently pose for his dynamic virtual cameras. If “Cloverfield” was the shaky, mock-doc answer to a kaiju movie, then “Godzilla vs. Kong” is its glossy, gleefully artificial antithesis: a fantasy brawl where nearly every shot looks mythic.
Screenwriters Eric Pearson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) and Max Borenstein (who’s been with the franchise since 2014’s “Godzilla”) have a way of complicating things with twists that barely hold water — including “Stranger Things” actress Millie Bobby Brown’s “Stranger Things”-like bunker break-in. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is most satisfying when it’s at its most simple, which happens either in quiet bonding scenes between Jia and Kong, or else in those deafening moments when the monsters are duking it out.
This they do in a Zack Snyder-esque suspended-animation way, so that fans probably don’t even consciously realize the filmmaker is dialing down the frame rate to accentuate their most dramatic moves (say, when Kong smashes his giant blue ax into Zilla’s face). Back in the day, these franchises relied on endearingly clunky practical effects, using stop-motion and rubber suits to bring the creatures to life. By contrast, this entry amounts to a high-end cartoon, in which computer-generated characters pummel each other on virtual sets.
While stunning, the footage has that hyperreal-to-the-point-of-fake look, where everything is either moodily twilit or smothered in magic-hour honey. Granted, that’s an improvement over both Godzilla’s and Kong’s hokey lo-fi origins. Just because Warner Bros. is treating the adversaries as bona fide A-listers doesn’t mean the rock-’em-sock-’em extravaganza amounts to anything more than a dumb-fun B-movie. Nor should it. Considering the havoc a microscopic virus has wreaked on the past year, being caught between two 400-foot titans doesn’t seem so bad.