‘Godzilla x Kong’ Review: Godzilla Minus One Thing: a Reason to Exist


Watching “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” I realized that the movie, a standard overly busy and mediocre blockbuster with a pretty awesome wow of a clash-of-the-titans climax, was demonstrating one of the essential principles of Hollywood movie culture today. Namely: All blockbuster movies are now connected!

Kong, living in the Hollow Earth, where most of the film is set (the Hollow Earth is a place I’ve never much liked the idea of, since it seems like Earth’s version of a storage basement), is supposedly the last of his kind, but he discovers a child ape who actually looks like an homage to the cuddly creature in the 1967 Japanese film “Son of Godzilla.” This kid gorilla leads Kong to a tribe of scraggly hostile apes who are living in a slave society presided over by the Skar King, an evil ape with blotchy red hair who’s as tall as Kong and wields a skeletal bone whip that looks like it was fashioned out of the spine of a sea serpent. He also commands, as a kind of personal weapon of mass destruction, a gigantoid creature who’s like a stegosaurus who got left in the freezer — and, in fact, his main power is a breath ray that can turn anything, including the mighty Kong, to ice.

In other words, Kong is facing a force who’s exactly like the villain in “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire”!

Then there’s Godzilla. He spends the film preparing for an apocalyptic showdown by traveling from one place to the next and absorbing radiation, first from a nuclear facility, then from an undersea battle with a flower-headed monster so radioactive it’s iridescent. By the time Godzilla is done with all this, his very being has been suffused with radioactive power, to the point that he literally turns pink.

In other words, he looks like he’s having his “Barbie” moment.

And then there’s the essential way that “Godzilla x Kong,” the fifth entry in the MonsterVerse, is a lot like the umpteenth installment of a superhero franchise. The movie is punctuated with occasional creature battles, but for the first 90 minutes it’s more devoted than not to coloring in the backstory of its world-building. (I know that prospect is already exciting you.) Godzilla and Kong each have a complicated relationship with their place in the earthly cosmos, and the story jumps through major hoops to transform them from foes to comrades.

The film’s central character, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), while she’s busy charting all this, is most invested in the fate of Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the adoptive daughter she rescued after the Iwi people of Skull Island were destroyed. As it happens, the Hollow Earth is home to another tribe of Iwi (there’s a lot going on in that basement), who Jia can communicate with telepathically. And she turns out to be a kind of chosen one, since Jia will prove the key figure in activating Mothra (now reimagined in shimmery designer gold), Godzilla’s old nemesis-turned-ally, who will be instrumental in the outcome of the final clash…

The thing that connects “Godzilla x Kong” to last year’s run of superhero films — the ones that everybody complained about — is that, just like them, the movie can make your head hurt. But not because it’s too convoluted to follow. It’s because the real convolution is: Why are we supposed to care? About any of this?

The fact that we might not makes “Godzilla x Kong” feel like one of those “Jurassic Park” sequels where everyone is huffing and puffing about the fate of the world and “relevant” issues of genetic engineering — but we’re just there for the ride, which now feels like it has a study sheet attached. I guess this is the part of the review where I’m supposed to say that Brian Tyree Henry, as the wide-eyed tech-whistleblower-turned-conspiracy-blogger Bernie Hayes, and Dan Stevens, as the snarky British veterinarian Trapper, are a riot, but it felt to me like the two actors were mostly filling space. Rebecca Hall, in a no-nonsense haircut, uses her avid severity well, and Kaylee Hottle, as Jia, has a luminous presence, but I’m sorry, every time the film summons a human dimension it feels like boilerplate.  

You could say that the qualifier, the one that’s always there in a Godzilla movie, is that in the kaiju films of Japan the stories don’t matter either; they are often nonsense. But not always. The original “Godzilla,” in 1954, was schlock with a fairy-tale sci-fi gravity; that was true, as well, of the other two standouts of the early kaiju films, “Mothra” (1961) and “Destroy All Monsters” (1968). And it may turn out to be a stroke of karmic bad luck that “Godzilla x Kong” is coming out right on the heels of “Godzilla Minus One,” the movie that rocked the world of monster cinema. It had the lyrical majesty of those earlier films, as well as a story, rooted in Japan’s World War II trauma, that was actually linear and moving. It reminded you that these creatures could carry an emotional grandeur.

“Godzilla x Kong,” by contrast, is product, though it would be foolish to pretend that the best parts of it don’t “deliver.” The director, Adam Wingard (who made “Godzilla vs. Kong”), knows how to choreograph a beastie battle so that it does maximum damage in a way that appeals to your inner toy-smashing seven-year-old. In an early sequence where Godzilla ravages Rome (before curling up and going to sleep in the Colosseum), I actually winced at the image of all those gorgeous old buildings — all that history — reduced to rubble. Yet there’s a part of me that wishes that Godzilla, and the rest of the movie, would continue to stomp the real world. When these monsters are trashing recognizable cities, their mayhem is relatable, and the spectacle of it literally looks more real. When they square off against a backdrop of the craggy mountains and vistas of the Hollow Earth, you’re much more aware of the CGI-ness of it all.

Kong unfreezes himself, and proves once again to be the fiercest primate around. And Godzilla outradiates his foes, even as he’s now so defined by that pink glow that it’s almost as if he’s being set up as a new kind of allegorical monster: not a metaphor for the bomb, but a metaphor for…the return of responsible nuclear energy? Stay tuned for the next eye-popping and meaningless sequel.                



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