*Some spoilers in this review*
It’s been seven years since Gareth Edwards released Godzilla in 2014, kicking off the American “Monsterverse” (which has certainly panned out better than the Dark Universe), and was followed by Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Now Kong and Godzilla square off for the first time in almost 60 years in Godzilla Vs. Kong, and after decades of waiting the resulting film was surprisingly decent.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters kicked off some debate among fans about how much human screen time is too much human screen time in a kaiju movie, and after much grumbling about the overwrought divorced parent dynamic of that film, GvK opts for human characters that are present for the bare minimum amount necessary to propel the story. The villain Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir doing a decent-ish Ricardo Montalbán impression) has a lab that’s being attacked by Godzilla, while he’s working on a special project. He employs a disgraced scientist played by Alexander Skarsgård and a Monarch agent played by Rebecca Hall to use Kong to find a lost civilization at the center of the earth. Madison from King of the Monsters (reprised by Millie Bobby Brown) and her friend Josh (the impeccable Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilder People) join up with conspiracy theorist Bernie ( Brian Tyree Henry) as a ragtag group looking to get to the bottom of figuring out why Godzilla went on his recent rampage. Skarsgård and Hall are there pretty much there as Stock American Action Movie Male and Stock American Action Movie Female and have about as much personality between the two of them as Melba toast. Meanwhile Millie Bobby Brown’s B-plot feels a tad Scooby Doo-ish as she sneaks around a high tech secret laboratory that apparently doesn’t have a single surveillance camera. All of this is still more bearable than the human cast of King of the Monsters, or watching Kick Ass trudge through Godzilla ‘14 after Brian Cranston got killed off. The only human character I wasn’t totally indifferent towards was Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf orphan and native of Kong’s home, Skull Island, who communicates with the colossal ape with sign language. Cheesy and saccharine? Sure, but I still liked it. There’s a recurring theme of loss throughout the films that gives the human characters a bare minimum of pathos so they’re sympathetic, though none of it has any real pay off for them, while Kong goes through the most, story-wise.
Even though Godzilla has top billing in this film, it’s a Kong story through and through while Godzilla does little else than make Kong suffer. It’s a bit of a far cry from the 1962 King Kong who enjoyed a good drink, tussled with a giant octopus and shrugged off Godzilla’s atomic breath. GvK’s Kong is left without a home, with Skull Island being unceremoniously consumed by a storm offscreen, and he’s dragged across the planet at the behest of humans to find the center of the earth whilst being harangued by Godzilla. We see Godzilla return to being the sort of bully he was in the early Showa era, which feels weird given the previous two films and how they establish Godzilla as a brute, but not exactly malicious (unless you’re a giant monster wrecking San Francisco). Godzilla is less of a co-star and more of a nagging antagonist that viciously goes after Kong to the point where it feels almost mean-spirited compared to the vaudevillian shenanigans of their 1962 confrontation. Because every scene Godzilla shows up in is in the context of this fight we never get a moment of Godzilla on his own, like how the film focuses on Kong for long stretches. Kong is sad about losing Skull Island, how about some scenes of Godzilla pining for Mothra?
While this film is supposed to be the culmination of the Monsterverse films before it, the end result is alien in tone from its predecessors. Kong: Skull Island wore a love for grindhouse carnage on its sleeve with nods to Cannibal Holocaust and Master of the Flying Guillotine and while GvK flirts with that kind of carnage with a few human fatalities, we mostly get Kong being absolutely run through the ringer in his fight against Godzilla. As far as cinematography goes, GvK feels pretty divorced from the previous two Godzilla films. Godzilla ‘14 and KOTM favored a lot of low angle shots that emphasize the scale and awe surrounding these monsters. Instead GvK goes with fights shot at eye level with the monsters. There’s still some good camera work and the closeness of the shots really get you into the effects, but in the process we lose the sense of scale (and having to watch this movie on a TV screen instead of a theater doesn't help).
For a 2021 American made film, Godzilla Vs Kong trades in a surprising amount of references and motifs from Godzilla’s Showa and Heisei eras. The ship that follows Kong to the center of the earth is very reminiscent of the Super X from Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985, while Kong’s ancestral home at the center of the earth echoes ancient kingdoms from other Toho films such as Mu in Atragon and Seatopia in Godzilla vs Megalon. We also get our first American MechaGodzilla (second if you wanna count its cameo appearance in the Ready Player One movie), who’s also technically Mecha King Ghidorah since the skull’s of Godzilla’s fallen golden foe are used as a sort of organic remote control for the machine. The early teaser trailers for the 2014 Godzilla quoted Robert Oppenheimer while GvK goes for unabashed over the top goofiness that's honestly kind of fun, though the overall tone still feels closer to a lot of American action movies than most kaiju films.