When last we left King Kong in Kong: Skull Island…well, I don’t really remember. Skull Island was some sort of Truman Show-style imprisonment dome, and there was a plot to kill Kong, who was misunderstood, but he survived. Now, when last we left Godzilla in Godzilla: King of the Monsters…uh, there was a plot to kill Godzilla, who was misunderstood, which resulted in a lot of wreckage around Boston, and eventually the lizard survived. The corporate desire to build a Marvel-style cinematic universe out of these classic monsters really sabotages the most desirable outcome of these movies, which is to enjoy them in the moment and then forget everything about them.
What’s refreshing about Godzilla vs. Kong is that, for a movie with a franchise crossover built right into the title, it really understands the value of throwaway in-the-moment spectacle. That gleeful, effects-laden action exhibition is the film’s focus, a celebratory showcase of the mindless scenery demolition befitting a movie that pits two of cinema’s most iconic monsters against one another. Writing from the perspective of one who viewed it on a screener at home, I can say pretty confidently that it would be even more fun on the big screen, and indeed, Warner Bros. has slotted the film as a potential “First Film Back” experience as the country tentatively re-opens cinemas. Frankly, a drive-in might be its ultimate venue – maintain appropriate social distancing and revel in the kitsch factor.
That caution-to-the-wind, logic-out-the-door kitsch is Godzilla vs. Kong’s happy place. Even as convention requires a plot to unfold, this film views plot as a sort-of in-joke, so elaborate in its ludicrousness that it feels like everyone on screen is chuckling along with the audience. Godzilla has re-emerged from deep within the sea and unleashed a string of devastating attacks. Young Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the Godzilla Whisperer from King of the Monsters, can’t believe these attacks are random…because after all, this creature is misunderstood. She partners with Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), a conspiracy theorist whose theories are actually correct, to expose a sinister plot at Apex Cybernetics, a global research power owned by Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), who sips whiskey while conducting laboratory experiments, so you know he’s bad news. Apex is seeking to harness an energy source powerful enough to use against Godzilla, but Madison senses the company is provoking the Titan’s attacks in order to accomplish its ultimate plan to destroy him.
The hallowed energy source is located in a sacred interdimensional location dubbed “Hollow Earth,” which also purports to be Kong’s original home (just roll with it). The evil corporation taps notorious scientist Alex Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) to lead an expedition to Hollow Earth and extract a sample, but they need to coax Kong into leading the exploration. Enter Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who has apparently dedicated her life’s work to studying Kong, which gives her license to fire off lines like, “Kong answers to no one” and “No one can keep the reins on Kong.” Her adopted daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), is the Kong Whisperer, and she helps keep the Titan – who is ultimately just misunderstood – calm on their journey to Hollow Earth.
The two halves of the plot operate in parallel and, stunningly, never intersect, functioning as two ends of a burning candle that eventually bring the titular monsters together in an extended climactic brawl that viciously destroys the entirety of Hong Kong – though not to worry, it’s all just CGI. Amid what must be the obliteration of all human life in this neon-lit metropolis, we bear witness to the only humanity that truly matters: the humanity within Godzilla and Kong. Their primal battle for supremacy – because, as we’re told in another spectacular bit of dialogue, “there cannot be two Alpha Titans” – is the film’s reason for being, and it’s presented with jubilant gusto. The director is Adam Wingard, whose early career was marked by inventive independent genre gems like You’re Next and The Guest. That sensibility serves the film well, since Wingard understands that genre expectations remain the same even within mega-budget spectacles, so he can manipulate them when necessary. Ultimately, though, not much manipulation is required, since a title like Godzilla vs. Kong requires a certain commitment to absurdity. Wingard and his cast lean into that absurdity, and it’s a fun in-the-moment ride. I look forward to forgetting all about it and then enjoying it again at a drive-in revival.