Home > Reviews > Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA VS. KONG (Spoilers)

Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA VS. KONG (Spoilers)

The library finally came through with my copy of Godzilla vs. Kong, the climax of what we could derivatively call “Phase One” of Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” combining Toho’s Godzilla/kaiju franchise with the King Kong franchise. The film picks up the concepts and story threads built up over the previous three films, Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), though the returning human cast members are limited to GKotM’s Millie Bobby Brown (who really needs to be signed up immediately for a Young Princess Leia series or movie before she ages out of it) and Kyle Chandler — and Chandler’s obnoxious Mark Russell character is fortunately reduced to a very minor role. GKotM’s Zhang Ziyi was signed up to return, but her part was cut out entirely (along with Jessica Henwick, who I mentioned in my GKotM review as someone I was looking forward to seeing).

The film opens on Skull Island with Kong waking up to classic rock being piped into his jungle on speakers, a stylistic nod to the soundtrack of KSI. He has a friendly exchange with a young deaf girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottie), who we will learn is the last survivor of the Iwi tribe seen in KSI, and who’s been adopted by Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the film’s resident Kong expert. But he throws a tree trunk at the sky and breaks a hole in the virtual projection on the vast dome holding him in, built by the monster-regulating Monarch organization introduced in the previous films. Andrews and a colleague exposit to each other that Kong needs to be contained to protect him from Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another alpha Titan, but that Kong has grown too big for his habitat. This addresses both Kong’s absence in GKotM and his much vaster size here than in KSI (which did foreshadow that he was still a growing boy).

We then cut to Brian Tyree Henry as Bernie Hayes, a conspiracy nut and whistleblower within Apex Cybernetics, a powerful tech corporation that he thinks is doing something sinister involving the Titans — something that draws Godzilla to attack an Apex facility, changing his public image from hero Titan to menace to humanity. Bernie’s got a podcast reporting to the public on his secret investigation on a daily basis, surely tipping Apex off to the existence of a whistleblower within their ranks, and he makes no effort to disguise his distinctive Brian Tyree Henry-esque booming voice in his podcasts, which seems contradictory for a paranoid, secretive character like Bernie’s supposed to be. (It’s unclear if his paranoia is an act, since we see him warning a co-worker against eating a GMO apple and then eating it himself, but otherwise he seems sincere.) But it provides an excuse to bring in Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell, Bernie’s most loyal listener, who tracks him down to get his help exposing Apex, along with her nerdy friend Josh (Julian Dennison), who’s mainly just there to complain.

Ilene is approached by her old flame Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), formerly of Monarch, who’s been approached in turn by Apex exec Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) to mount an expedition into the Hollow Earth to find some MacGuffinish “power source” that could save the world from Godzilla in some unclear way. For some unexplained reason, Lind is considered a crackpot for his Hollow Earth theories even though that realm has been confirmed to exist in previous movies. Apparently the Hollow Earth is more than just underground tunnels but involves a “gravitational inversion” that killed Lind’s brother on their last attempt to get in. But Simmons has developed antigravity-powered Hollow Earth Aerial Vehicles that could survive the transition, and somehow their best brains never realized that “HEAV” (pronounced “heave”) is a terrible name.

Anyway, Lind needs Ilene to recruit Kong as a guide to the Hollow Earth power source, on the theory that Titans have a salmon-like instinct to return to their origins (sounds fishy). He somehow talks Ilene into agreeing, and bringing Jia along because she keeps Kong calm. The involved process of sedating and restraining Kong is skipped over, and we cut to him being chained on a flatbed ship in a military convoy heading for the Hollow Earth entrance in Antarctica, where Ilene discovers what she somehow missed, that Kong speaks sign language and converses with Jia, but they kept it from Ilene since Kong didn’t want her to know. (He’s a gorilla the size of a skyscraper under constant scientific scrutiny. How did he hide it?) Anyway, Ilene was right about one thing: taking Kong out of his dome attracts Godzilla, who’s determined to force his rival to submit to his dominance. His attack threatens to sink the ship and drown Kong until Lind hits the button to release the chains, something he argued against before. I’m not sure whether that’s showing Lind’s growth or just making him the designated hero because he’s the main white male in the film.

Anyway, there’s a big Kong/Godzilla throwdown underwater and on top of the ships, quite a massive fight for 3/4 of an hour into the film, and Kong basically loses, getting wrapped in Goji’s tail and half-drowned until the fleet uses depth charges to disorient Goji and let Kong climb to safety, then goes to silent running to play dead.

To avoid Goji’s notice, they airlift Kong to Antarctica in a net carried by a fleet of helicopters, evoking a visual from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Ilene gets Jia to convince Kong he might find family in the Hollow Earth, prompting him to dive in, with the HEAVs following. The gravitational inversion turns out not to be just some kind of weightless transitional zone, but a full-on 2001-ripoff space warp that spits the HEAVs out in the Hollow Earth, a realm sandwiched between two parallel surfaces with opposing gravities and a lot of weightless rocks floating at the midway plane (how’d they get up there?). The space warp seems gratuitous given that this is supposed to be a Pellucidar-like hollow inside the Earth, rather than some alternate dimension or whatever. They seem to be throwing concepts together without worrying about cohesiveness. Oddly, despite what’s been said all along about the Titans being native to the Hollow Earth, there’s no sign of any familiar kaiju from previous films — no other Godzillas, no Mothras, no Rodans, no MUTOs, even. Well, some pterosaurs from Skull Island, but that’s it. There are some original Titans, though, notably some winged-snake things called Warbats that Kong fights.

Kong eventually finds the ruins of a Kong-sized civilization and a giant axe apparently made from a Godzilla spine and bone. Kong somehow intuits to use this scale as the key to unlocking the super-“power source” that Simmons sent the expedition to find. Simmons’s gorgeous but arrogant daughter Maia (Eiza González), sent along as babysitter but too undeveloped a character to be worth mentioning until now, steals a sample of the power source, which Ilene and Lind are startled by, even though it’s precisely what the whole expedition was explicitly sent to do in the first place. Huh?

And then there’s another “Huh?”, because apparently all Simmons needs to harness this power source is to get a scan of its energy signature transmitted to him, whereupon he’s instantly able to replicate it. What? If this is some super-energy source beyond anything human technology has, how does human technology have the energy to replicate it in a matter of minutes? Isn’t the whole point of a power source that you need to harness the actual source itself to provide the power? You can’t fuel a car with a spectrograph of gasoline vapor. You need the actual substance.

I need to backtrack a bit here, since Madison, Bernie, and Josh have snuck into the destroyed Apex facility in Florida and discovered an underground hyper-monorail system that spirits them to Apex’s Hong Kong facility, where Apex is using Skullcrawlers (from Kong: Skull Island) as test victims for their very own Mechagodzilla. (The plot of this film is so cursory that I just didn’t feel the need to keep up with this bunch until now.) Somehow the three intruders go absolutely unobserved for a long time even while standing right in the middle of the heavily monitored Mechagoji test chamber, and they’re able to find that Mechagoji is telepathically controlled from a station built into the King Ghidorah skull salvaged in the post-credits scene of GKotM, with an implicit second KG skull inside Mechagoji (making it a fusion of Mechagodzilla and Mecha-King Ghidorah). The pilot, by the way, is named Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), but he’s such a cipher of a character that the implied relationship to Dr. Serizawa from the previous films is never addressed.

So anyway, Simmons wants the Hollow Earth power source to bring Mechagodzilla to full power so that humans can reclaim the “alpha” status from Godzilla. Goji senses MG’s testing and attacks Hong Kong, whereupon he… uh… wait… whereupon he turns out not to be targeting Mechagodzilla after all. Instead he… um… he uses his atomic breath to blast a hole way, way down through the Earth’s crust to blow up the power source in the Hollow Earth temple where Kong is, which… is coincidentally directly below Hong Kong. Yeah. Uh-huh.

WHAAAAAA???????????

This has got to be the lamest way ever to get two disconnected plotlines to converge. I mean, the whole reason Apex needed to use Kong was so he could guide them to the power source, whose location they were unaware of. And it turns out the location was literally right underneath Apex’s main base the whole time???? That is a gigantic cheat. Nobody in the film even remarks on the mind-boggling coincidence or irony of it all. It’s jarring to see what we think is Godzilla reacting to one of the two plotlines and have it instead be a totally random, contrived way to drag the two disconnected plotlines together.

Not only that, but the whole Stargate spacewarp inversion from earlier is gone; now there’s just a big ol’ hole that Kong drops into/climbs out of to attack Godzilla with his new axe. They have a big throwdown that trashes Hong Kong, and unlike the previous MonsterVerse films, there’s no more than the barest token attempt to acknowledge the human impact of this horrendous destruction, with just a couple of brief shots of fleeing citizens. As a result, there’s no sense of stakes to the battle of Titans and it’s all just shallow spectacle and noise. The watching Lind and Ilene show no sense of horror at the cataclysmic loss of life, just idly remarking on who’s winning. If the characters don’t have any strong reaction to what we’re seeing, why should we?

Kong wins the “second round,” in Lind’s estimation, by knocking Godzilla to the proverbial mat, but his ruling is premature; Goji rallies and thrashes him rather decisively, pinning Kong down and only releasing him when Kong gives up the fight. This surprised me; since Kong lost the first bout, I’d expected him to win the second. Indeed, as Jia soon discovers by feeling his heartbeat through the ground, Kong is dying.

Meanwhile, once Simmons brings Mechagodilla to full power, Serizawa loses his connection and the mecha takes on a life of its own, killing Simmons in mid-megalomaniacal speech. Implicitly, King Ghidorah’s consciousness has taken it over, in a beat similar to the one in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla where Kiryu was taken over by the spirit of the Godzilla skeleton it was built around. Although, like so many things in this film, that part is glossed over. Explanations, connective logic, characterizations, it’s all expendable in favor of the CGI spectacle. So anyway, Mechagoji breaks out of the Apex base and attacks Godzilla. You can surely guess what comes next: Lind uses one of the HEAVs’ experimental engines to shock Kong’s heart (because in fiction, defibrillation to restart a stopped heart magically cures whatever broader systemic damage is responsible for the heart stopping in the first place), Jia convinces Kong that his real enemy is the metal Goji instead of the scaly one, and the two alpha Titans team up to kill the mecha. They even do a combi move (as they call it in Japan) where Godzilla supercharges Kong’s axe with his atomic breath. As the human characters reunite and look on, the Titans face each other off once more, but Kong lets the axe fall and Godzilla leaves him be, returning to the sea.

Well, this is the first Legendary MonsterVerse film that really disappointed me. It’s a silly, shallow mess of cluttered spectacle, feeling like a film whose script was hacked apart and sloppily reassembled by studio fiat, losing most of its substance and coherence in the process. The characterizations established in the first hour, such as they are, get lost in the second half, with the characters becoming little more than tools for exposition and plot advancement and spectators to the CGI carnage. Madison Russell in particular is very poorly served; her ultimate role in the film is simply to stand there and watch events unfolding around her. At the end, Bernie and Josh contribute in their own small way to weakening Mechagodzilla, but Madison, who played a key role in driving events in the climax of the previous film, just stands there uselessly this time while the people with Y chromosomes get all the agency. It’s an utter waste of her character. Indeed, she and her father, the only returning human characters from the previous film, could have been left out of this one entirely without significantly affecting its plot, as she’s only there to tag along with Bernie, the real driver of that half of the film. Which is unfortunate in itself, since Bernie is a conspiracy nut with a lot of nonsensical beliefs, but we’re supposed to believe that he’s a reliable guide to what’s really going on. The film had the misfortune of coming out after the January 6 coup attempt, after which it became impossible to see conspiracy nuts as harmlessly endearing. Even aside from that, Bernie’s eccentric paranoid schtick just isn’t remotely as funny as the film imagines it to be. He and Josh are both rather irritating, making it all the more annoying that they overshadow Madison.

Between Madison’s wasted role and the throwaway treatment of Ren Serizawa — as well as Lance Reddick being credited prominently in the opening titles yet only having one or two lines of exposition to Kyle Chandler — I have to wonder how much of this film’s plot ended up on the cutting room floor in favor of CGI wackiness. (The running time is 1 hour, 53 minutes, the shortest in the series, though only by 5 minutes; GKotM is the longest, but it’s only 2 hours, 11 minutes.) Well, I don’t have to wonder; this Instagram post spells out the massive changes and cuts to the original story, with huge swaths of characterization and story being hacked away in the belief that sacrificing plot and character for empty spectacle would make it “more palatable for general audiences.” It’s a great letdown after Kong: Skull Island, which had rich, effective character work to anchor its monster story. The previous two Godzilla films had more mediocre character work, but even they were substantially richer than anything here. This was supposed to be the pinnacle of seven years of universe-building, but it’s the emptiest, most insubstantial and unsatisfying installment in the whole series. What a waste.

Apparently, despite being so shallow and dumb, GvK was successful enough that Legendary is making plans for more films in the series. Before today, I would’ve been glad to know they were making more. Now, I’m not so sure.

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