Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (PG-13) ★½

Review Date: March 29th, 2024

For several entries, the series dubbed by Warner Brothers as the "Monsterverse" has been declining into Transformers territory. Godzilla x Kong marks the point at which that dreaded barrel-bottom has been reached. A numbing excursion into CGI carnage, the film does an adequate job of presenting monster-on-monster action while completely ignoring the human cost of, for example, a Battle Royale in and around Rio de Janeiro (the Christ the Redeemer statue survives; they same can't be said for the Pyramids of Giza in a separate fight). There's a sense of diminishing returns in these American productions - a growing sameness to the action that swapping the participants can't change. The best Monsterverse battle to-date remains the Godzilla/Ghidorah clash in King of the Monsters.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle for this movie to overcome is the existence of Godzilla Minus One. The best big-screen Godzilla excursion in years, it reminds viewers what a real Godzilla movie can be like. Godzilla x Kong doesn't come close. Godzilla Minus One has heart. It has scope. And, most important of all, the title creature engenders a sense of awe. There's nothing of the sort in this fifth Monsterverse chapter. Godzilla is still a little "off" and Kong (the "King" is never used) is almost as big an imposter (emphasis on "big" - he's ten times the size he was in 1933) as the sad-sack version in Toho's 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla.

The story - if it can be called that - picks up a few years after the conclusion of Godzilla vs. Kong. Kong has gone deep underground into his Hollow Earth home to look for others of his kind. He's getting lonely and has developed a toothache. Meanwhile, Godzilla is running around on the surface, occasionally causing upset such as when he decides to turn the Coliseum in Rome into a bed (curled up like a cat, he fills it up). Eventually, it becomes apparent that Kong is not alone in his milieu - there are a whole bunch of other giant gorillas ruled over by the cruel, vicious Skar King. When Kong challenges him for rule of the troop, the Skar King reveals his secret weapon: Shimo, a captive ancient titan capable of controlling and channeling cold. To defeat him, Kong must return to the surface and find a way to bring Godzilla into Hollow Earth.

Oh, there are some humans running around as well. They don't serve much purpose beyond providing exposition and occasionally moving the plot forward. Returning characters include Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a Monarch scientist; Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a conspiracy-loving podcaster; and Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the mute child with a special connection with Kong. Newcomers include Trapper (Dan Stevens), a kaiju dentist; and Mikael (Alex Ferns), a no-nonsense military pilot. The movie tries to develop an adoptive mother/daughter storyline between Ilene and Jia, with the latter trying to "find her place," but it's done in such a clunky, unsubtle way that it loses all possible emotional impact. In truth, Kong's interactions with a young gorilla are as affecting.

It's tempting to say that Godzilla x Kong is the worst written of the major kaiju movies but that would be short-sighted. This is, after all, a franchise that included (among other gems) Destroy All Monsters, which is best watched drunk, stoned, or both. The level of plotting and dialogue evident in Godzilla x Kong are on par with the worst of Michael Bay's Transformers travesties. Godzilla x Kong would have been better if it had been 100% CGI with no people whatsoever. Then it could have concentrated more on the thing people see these movies for in the first place. No one goes to a Godzilla movie for Rebecca Hall.

Anyone seeing Godzilla x Kong may be disappointed by Godzilla's arc. He doesn't do much except romp around, engaging in the occasional bout of destruction and "fighting" other titans. His goal is supercharging himself so his dorsal plates turn a pretty pink/purple. Kong, meanwhile, gets a lion's share of the screen time as he searches for others of his kind then tries to prevent the Hollow Earth apocalypse from spilling over to the outer world. He gets to try his hand at parenting (in sequences that director Adam Wingard improbably says were inspired by Three Men and a Baby) and re-connects with Jia when he goes to see the dentist.

As with other Godzilla movies, this recalls earlier films. Unfortunately, most aren't the best associations. A lot of the Kong material causes a bad acid trip flashback to the 1986 monstrosity King Kong Lives (there are far too many similarities for this to be coincidental, although the mechanical heart has been replaced by an artificial tooth). And the Godzilla stuff doesn't exactly resurrect memories of the King of Monsters at his best - more like when he was tangling with things like the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Hedorah) during the 1970s.

Tone is something Wingard struggles with. Although the best Godzilla movies have been serious endeavors with allegorical elements, the team-ups/smackdowns have tended toward high camp with WWE-style flourishes. Starting with King Kong vs. Godzilla, the Toho-produced movies grew increasingly silly during the Showa era. Had Godzilla x Kong fully embraced this tone rather than trying for things like "emotional resonance," it might have been more enjoyable. However, while there are comedic/satirical aspects, the movie as a whole takes itself too seriously.

When watching something like this, I occasionally feel like deferring to my eight-year-old monster movie-loving self. I think that version of myself would have been a little bored by the lengthy periods of setup then delighted by the three big battles (Kong vs. King Scar, Kong vs. Godzilla redux, Kong/Godzilla/Mothra vs. King Skar/Shimo). But even for those who have an orgasmic reaction to kaiju confrontations, far too little of the film is devoted to them and the overreliance on CGI leeches away the immediacy and awe associated with the spectacle. This isn't as bad as the 1998 Godzilla misfire but it's perilously close. If there are to be any more Monsterverse movies (something I don't favor), turn them over to Takashi Yamazaki. He knows how to do it right.

© 2024 James Berardinelli