Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
GODZILLA VS. KONG
Rated PG-13, 113 minutes
Directed by: Adam Wingard
When it comes to films in the Monsterverse, all that’s needed to satisfy is seeing crushing kaiju smashing skyscrapers, causing chaos and humbling human antagonists. And in that regard, GODZILLA VS. KONG delivers on its promise for a hugely entertaining spectacle. The titular characters’ ground-leveling hijinks provide plenty of gratifying, gorgeous and gasp-inducing moments. But the picture also has a heap ton of heart, making it weigh in as the champion chapter with the greatest emotional pull.
Kong has been living a dull, quiet life on Skull Island with young hearing-impaired indigenous islander Jia (Kaylee Hottle) as his only genuine human connection. We’re quick to learn that he’s been imprisoned in a Monarch containment facility for his protection as there can’t be two alpha titans awake in the world at the same time. Not only is this confinement affecting his psyche, causing him to aggressively act out, but his environment is also becoming unstable. The head scientist overseeing his care, Dr. Andrews (Rebecca Hall), is facing the excruciating decision of whether to move him offsite – risking the revival of an ancient rivalry between the powerhouse primate and Godzilla, who has recently resurfaced.
Enter disgraced professor Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) with the answer. Lind’s research has concluded there’s a mythical birthplace of all titans, hidden deep underground. However, all his efforts to reach it have been fruitless – and led to the death of his brother. This untouched oasis is called Hollow Earth and can be accessed through a remote tunnel in the frozen tundra of Antartica. This place could provide the necessary shelter for Kong’s survival (provided he leads them there) and give preservation-minded scientists new fertile ground to explore. Apex Cybernetics owner Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) believes Lind’s findings and recruits him to help locate this lost world, so long as his daughter Maya (Eiza González) can tag along on the quest. However, Simmons and his right hand man, engineer Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), have ulterior motives, the likes of which will cause massive amounts of mayhem, devastating destruction and possibly the end of all giant monsters.
Director Adam Wingard and screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein (who work from a story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields) bestow the film with a decent balance between the human shenanigans and the kaiju calamity, but they wisely tip the scales towards the big action set pieces. Of the film’s three big, brutal battles with these behemoths, all put character at the fore – a gargantuan feat in a film like this – and each have their own gorgeous aesthetic where you’d want to frame each frame. The first clash between Godzilla and Kong, their oceanic brawl, carries gravitas (even upon Kong’s first sucker punch and Godzilla’s slap back) and an epic level of narrative weight. It also benefits from Tom Holkenborg’s booming score and John “DJ” DesJardin jaw-dropping visual effects. It’s an earned fight this series has been building towards between two established icons duking it out for dominance, laying waste to fighter jets and battleships as if they were toddlers in a bathtub. Their second fight is much more animalistic in nature as the pair get scrappy amidst the neon-lit skyline of Hong Kong. The final climactic face-off with a mysterious foe (one an international trailer spoiled) serves as a decent culmination of the human plotlines, in which most of film’s set-ups are logically paid off.
Still, for every crashing, thunderous sequence, the feature also succeeds in its quieter scenes where character is manifested and evolves. Gia’s friendship with Kong functions as the beating heart of the story. They communicate with each other both through sign language and the unspoken language of compassion and empathy. It’s not pressed upon too heavily, but they both suffer from a deception, and the weight of that slight betrayal feels poignant. Hottle herself demonstrates charisma and magnetism, carrying her scenes with a poised, assured stature for her tiny frame – especially against a massive creature, who benefits from anthropomorphized character designs.
That said, this is an ensemble piece and like most of its ilk, not all the storylines are strong. This leads to a few lulls in the picture’s propulsive drive. The weakest thread in this film’s fabric involves Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and conspiracy theorist podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry). Madison believes Godzilla perceives a threat and is attacking because of it. And when dad Mark (Kyle Chandler) doesn’t believe her, she and her pals sneak into Apex to uncover the truth. Their inclusion is warranted, but the trio are Exposition Central. Plus, intertwining the franchise’s familial relationships comes across as a tad sloppy: Connections between fathers and daughters are there, but they’re loosely tied – as shown through the prisms of those who get along (Maya and Walter) and those who don’t (Mark and Madison). Jia and Dr. Andrews have a positive, albeit surrogate mother-daughter bond. Plus there’s a potential father-son dynamic with young Serizawa possibly out to avenge his father’s death – though we can only infer this, as it’s never explored.
Yet what sticks with us the longest aren’t the dramatics, themes, or human character construction – though, ideally, it could be all these things. It’s the monsters themselves, who serve up lots of bloody good mini-movie-moments, like Kong ripping the head off an otherworldly creature and quenching his thirst by using its head as a chalice. Further joy can be found in spotting the references to 1963’s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and 1933’s KING KONG. There’s even a place to holler “Kiss him!” at the screen when Godzilla and Kong scream in each other’s faces. And, for a fleeting moment, there’s the potential it could happen.
GODZILLA VS. KONG opens in select theaters and premieres on HBOMax on March 31 (in the United States).