The last two months of rabid meme-spawning ridicule aimed at the absurdity of Godzilla vs Kong’s very existence had prepped us all for a punchline rather than an actual movie, something to poke fun at rather than have fun with. It wasn’t just because of its inherent, Happy Meal tie-in silliness but also an awareness of what had come before, a young Warner Brothers cinematic universe precariously built on shoddy foundations. Gareth Edwards’s 2014 Godzilla might have boasted a couple of visually audacious sequences but it was mostly a rather unacceptably dull and bafflingly serious reboot. It was at least coherent, something that Michael Dougherty’s noisy 2018 sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters couldn’t even manage, an unwieldy mess of a thing that was embarrassingly outdone by a canny marketing campaign.
In-between the two, there was more to recommend in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island in 2017, which was uneven but mostly rather entertaining and surprisingly nasty, bolstered by a keener awareness of what tone a b-movie such as this needs to at least somewhat work. The films had attempted to lay the groundwork for an interconnected world of city-crushing monsters controlled by Monarch, a shadowy scientific organisation, but the convoluted cork board dot-connecting pushed us further away from the good stuff: watching giant creatures destroy things. The commercial failure of Godzilla: King of the Monsters – a film that barely covered its budget and marketing costs worldwide – was surely enough to make Warners second guess their expensive and extravagant MonsterVerse especially after a bullish decision to shoot Godzilla vs Kong before its predecessor had even been released.
The tea leaves weren’t offering up much hope, dampened even further by the pandemic, a film designed for the biggest screen possible modestly unfurling for many of us at home instead (in the US it will be available on HBO Max and in cinemas and in the UK it’s a premium rental). But perhaps this unlikely underdog positioning has ultimately come to Godzilla vs Kong’s rescue because what was initially seen as a bloated and unwanted piece of boardroom product has now become a scrappy little contender, fighting its way from far beneath sea level up to the surface, triumphantly landing on both feet, the striking spring surprise none of us had expected.
After the overstuffed and underwritten jumble of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which links directly to the plot here, it’s a pleasure to see the surer hand of horror director Adam Wingard leap over any similarly soapy setup (he quickly realises we give only the slightest of damns about the humans) and throw us directly into the action, which then barely relents for the ensuing almost two-hour runtime. It’s not that Godzilla vs Kong isn’t also overstuffed but as a whole it’s a more graceful beast, dotting from one plot thread to the other with speed and agility, a proudly defined b-movie that picks goofiness over the strange self-serious pretentiousness that suffocated the Godzillas that came before it. The plot is, of course, just a frantic way to justify why the two titans would come to blows (both had been positioned as protectors of humanity in previous films) and their beef is down to a mysterious threat that is somehow connected to Apex Industries, a company whose headquarters is attacked by a previously dormant Godzilla in the first act. His destructive reappearance leads to global concern that he may now be more foe than friend and so Kong, living in a controlled tech simulation within Skull Island, is recruited to help by leading a group of humans on a deep dive to the core of the Earth, the specifics of which are too silly to get into and also of lesser interest than the main question most readers will have: how are those fight scenes?
While the misleadingly magnificent trailers for Godzilla: King of the Monsters teased a film of immersive action and sweeping, surreal beauty, the film itself offered up confusing choreography, ugly editing and an inability to turn a single stunning image into a sequence of note. Despite genre inexperience, You’re Next and Death Note director Wingard quickly grasps the mechanics of action far quicker and with each of the many, many set-pieces that come, he’s able to keep us grounded while in the middle of chaos, allowing us to follow and feel a part of the manic smashing and crashing (something the first Pacific Rim also struggled to do). The much-hyped battles deliver the giddy thrills we demand but in the moments when the pair aren’t at war there’s also a staggeringly well-built and extensive universe to explore and one that’s barely been teased in the trailers we’ve seen. The journey to the core of the Earth is a film in itself and while visual touches are cribbed from both Star Wars and Tron franchises, it’s all so remarkably handsome that it’s hard to complain.
The humans are obviously of minimal importance (the finale in particular is jaw-droppingly callous in its destruction of an entire city and its inhabitants) but the script, from the Marvel writer Eric Pearson and the MonsterVerse stalwart Max Borenstein, uses the film’s ensemble mostly well, they propel things along without dragging them down. There’s no time for romance between Rebecca Hall’s anthropological linguist and Alexander Skarsgård’s geologist or between Millie Bobby Brown’s Godzilla-stanning teen and her friend Julian Dennison and while Brian Tyree Henry’s conspiracy theorist podcaster does get lumped with comic support, it’s breezy enough not to get annoying. The most impactful human character is played by deaf actor Kaylee Hottle, playing a girl who shares a bond with Kong, whose scenes come closest to giving the film some sort of heart.
But ultimately it works best when operating on the grandest scale imaginable and while there’s a bittersweet tinge for those of us watching it at home, it’s already serving as a reminder why the big screen experience will never go away. This past week, it set a global box office record for a film released during the pandemic (in many territories where cinema-going has returned to a semblance of normality, it’s receiving a standard theatrical release), a welcome boost to an industry suffering an existential crisis. So while, yes, Hollywood and Warner Brothers may end up being the biggest winners in the battle of Godzilla vs Kong, it’s a genuine surprise to report that we, as viewers, also emerge as victors. The last laugh shall be a roar.