Not since the 1962 film King Kong vs. Godzilla have the mighty titans faced each other in combat on the silver screen. It was the third film for both and, in keeping with the traditions of perceived heroism, Kong won the fight. Reborn in the modern Monsterverse, these two go head-to-head once more 59 years later and the question isn’t going to be who will win, but what format do you watch it in? WB Pictures is releasing all of their 2021 films simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max for 31 days. So you can stay at home, you can rent out a theater to watch privately, you can purchase a ticket to see it in Dolby, IMAX, and in 3D. Go whichever way makes you feel the most comfortable, but just make sure you go. Why? It doesn’t matter which of the two titans comes out on top in director Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong because we all win.
Sometime soon after the conclusion of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), just as newly-minted Monarch Deputy Director of Special Projects Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) think they understand the king of all monsters, Godzilla attacks the Pensacola, Florida, facility for technology manufacturer APEX Cybernetics. With the savior of humanity now seen as a villain, Mark tries to work on containment, while Madison is certain that something is amiss. Part of that certainty comes from the conspiracy podcast she listens to by Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), an engineer who thinks APEX is up to something. While this happens, over on Skull Island, Kong is showing signs that he’s grown too big for the containment facility built for him when the storm shrouding the island shifted, reducing the livable space. The need to find Kong a new home lines up with the interests of APEX and former Monarch Chief Geologist and Subterranean Cartographer Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), who think that Kong can lead them to his real homeland. All they have to do is avoid Godzilla along the way for there can only be one King in a world with two Alphas.
The way the characters speak of the rivalry between Kong and Godzilla, you’d think one was a Montague and the other a Capulet, that their two households, both alike in dignity, carry the burden of an ancient grudge which shall take civil blood and make civil hands unclean. This is what the screenwriters have been projecting since Kong: Skull Island (2017) and what GvK screenwriters Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island) want you to think now. In reality, it’s far more simple, more animalistic, and, to put things to rest, they are about to wreck your town. But in that glee of anticipation, in the revelry of destruction, there is opportunity to muck things up and, quite frankly, Pearson, Borenstein, and Wingard give the audience exactly what they want: tight storytelling, focused intent, clear action, and imaginative destruction. There are moments where GvK feels like you’re on a rollercoaster ride (cue up the 4DX) and it’s completely in-line with the world’s rules, enabling the audience to enjoy what’s happening without being taken out of the narrative. This is a *tough* balance to create, let alone sustain, and, yet, somehow they do it.
My biggest gripe with the previous two modern Godzilla films is the focus on human characters over the kaiju and that has more to do with the characters being less interesting overall than how they intersect with Godzilla. As presented in the new films, Godzilla is a literal force of nature, so there is no anthropomorphism taking place, except in the scene in King of the Monsters between Godzilla and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) as Serizawa tries to give Godzilla a jump start before the climax of the film. In contrast, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s story beautifully balances the human characters with Kong *and* the audience get a sense of Kong as a living creature. We sympathize with him even more so than with the other humans. In GvK, the humans serve the narrative in a far more clean and focused way. Their issues and struggles run tangential to that of their respective affiliations (Madison gathering forces to investigate why Godzilla is acting out of character; Rebecca Hall’s Kong expert Dr. Ilene Andrews and Kaylee Hottle’s Skull Islander Jia doing what they can to protect Kong) and never displace, distract, or reduce momentum, which was a frequent problem in the Godzilla films. Here, though, the humans only help elucidate the unknown or assist in creating narrative tension by sharing information that Godzilla and Kong are not privy too. New additions Henry, Hall, Hottle, and Skarsgård, feel right at home in this world. Each actor brings an energy that makes their respective sides feel necessary, though Henry is the true standout on the human side. His timing and delivery makes the ridiculousness of the character work in a way that the film needs. If one were to ID someone as the MVP of GvK, it would be Henry and this film is a showcase of what the actor could do given the opportunity. Without denigrating Henry’s work here, think Anthony Anderson’s Glen Whitmann in Transformers (2007) except not trying to be the comic relief. Similarly, Julian Dennison (The Hunt for the Wilderpeople/Deadpool 2) is markedly restrained, enabling the audience to get a sense of what the young actor could do outside of comedy. Wingard understands that the audience is there to root for their fav, so using the human characters effectively only makes their concern grow in the run-up to any titan-related altercation.
Audiences have already made up their minds over who is the true king much like a Monsterverse version of “A Song of Fire and Ice” thanks to nearly 60 years of cinema billowing their respective reputations. In one corner, there’s Godzilla standing at 394 feet, in possession of claws and scales as well as some intense atomic breath. In the opposite corner is Kong, standing 335 feet tall, supremely more agile, and infinitely more clever. Because the respective fandoms are so grand and intense, Wingard has the herculean task of doing right by both. Luckily for the audience, the script is well aware of the legacies at stake and offers each titan their propers, crafting fight sequences that reflect their respective strengths, taking into account their weaknesses, and designed to give the kaiju-loving audience members the destruction they crave. One sequence in particular felt like Wingard was shooting it to offer the same perspective as in the original films. Modern audiences are aware that there aren’t humans in rubber suits duking it out, but dang if it didn’t feel that way as the titans roared, punched, and tossed each other through one building and over another. In this way, the fighting felt like it was bridging time: taking something totally modern and packaging it like the early days of Toho’s kaiju tales.
Though the original films (Godzilla (1954) and King Kong (1933)) possess profound social commentary, the modern Monsterverse all but shuns them, using the iconography without the intent of driving conversation. There’s room for both thoughtful consideration and bombastic action, but you’re not going to find much of the former here. Because the makers of GvK are aware of the kind of story they’re telling and the yearnings of the audience, the whole film feels like its own tale. It does build off of the events of the previous films directly and it puts forth questions that, personally, I hope are explored in future films, but it doesn’t contain or require any deep thought to enjoy. However, the time for deep thought can come later. Calling Godzilla vs. Kong a rollercoaster ride before wasn’t just colorful hyperbole, it’s a proper description of a specific sequence. This sequence and others are why so many reviews or social commentary recommend an IMAX viewing of the film. There’s a grandness to Godzilla vs. Kong which would only be best served on the biggest screen possible, but see the film in the manner that makes you most comfortable. Watching on my 43in 4K UHD television and 5.1 Dolby surround seemed to capture the action just fine. Were I fully vaccinated, I might consider a theater visit. Safety first, kaiju fights second. For now though, it’s fight night and I’m betting (always) on Kong.
In select theaters and streaming on HBO Max for 31 days beginning March 31st, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Godzilla Vs. Kong website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.