The mere concept of King Kong going up against Godzilla is, as the fancy people say, a false dichotomy. Though many of us may harbor a slight preference for one or the other, there can never be a clear winner or loser because, face it: both are awesome. In fact, the only problem with any enterprise featuring these two most enduring titans is that there is always a necessary but troublesome plot involving people. And humans in these movies — unless being held aloft from a skyscraper-top in a skimpy dress, or trampled beneath a pissed-off reptile's clumsy, unmanicured toes — are almost always a bore.
They certainly are a plot liability in Godzilla vs. Kong, though it's not exactly the fault of the actors, who are all perfectly attractive and capable: Rebecca Hall plays brilliant person Ilene Andrews, also known as the Kong Whisperer, for obvious reasons. Alexander Skarsgård is Nathan Lind, a hottie masquerading as a slouchy academic — his specialty is a theory involving something called Hollow Earth, a kind of mirror world beneath the Earth's surface that may hold secrets to the origins of at least some of moviedom's favorite monsters. Demián Bechir is Walter Simmons, a slick, ambitious tech giant who is not even as nice as he seems, and he doesn't seem very nice at all. And Kyle Chandler reprises the role he played in the 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters, that of Dr. Mark Russell, a soulful Godzilla stan who nevertheless understands that Godzilla in a bad mood is not a Godzilla you want to be around. (Godzilla vs. Kong, out now on HBO Max, is the fourth film in Legendary Entertainment's MonsterVerse franchise, co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros., though the plots are all so forgettable that it doesn't much matter whether you've seen the previous films.)
There are other, younger humans in Godzilla vs. Kong, to further tip the monster-human scale in the wrong direction. Millie Bobby Brown (also returning from King of the Monsters) is Dr. Russell's teenage daughter, who has become enthralled with the ideas of conspiracy-theory podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), an employee of Simmons' company who knows his boss is up to no good. Kaylee Hottle, as Andrews' adopted daughter, Jia, gets the best human role in the movie: Jia is deaf - as Hottle is - and she has learned to understand Kong's thoughts via sign language, a plotline drawn straight from the story of Koko, the late, beloved California gorilla who loved kittens and learned to communicate with humans by signing.
The scenes between the diminutive Jia and her primate friend, who's about a kazillion times her size, are the movie's best, at least as far as the ones involving humans go: It's not just that she can communicate with Kong. She's also so attuned to his emotions that she can feel the vibration of his heartbeat thrumming through the ground, a lovely poetic flourish. The rest of the Godzilla vs. Kong plot is overly cluttered and instantly forgettable: Simmons enlists Lind's aid in trekking to Hollow Earth in search of some secret power source, with Kong as a guide. Meanwhile, he's also perfecting a Godzilla vanquisher in one of his facilities. Meanwhile, Godzilla leaves Florida in a huff and makes his way to Hong Kong, on the way encountering King Kong, who is being transported to a Hollow Earth portal by boat. And so forth.
But, come now: You know you're really only here for the monsters, squaring off and staring one another down, first at sea and later in the streets of Hong Kong. Director Adam Wingard (Blair Witch, The Guest) makes the most of these moments, fleeting as they are: The Hong Kong fight scenes are particularly gratifying, a melee of orchestrated swiping and tail-swishing that jolt the movie out of its doldrums.
But again, between these two alleged rivals, who can honestly pick a side? Kong is motivated by homesickness, Godzilla by rage — his tiny, alert eyes blink out the message that lives in his heart: Why can't everyone just leave me alone? Both are misunderstood loners, too big for the modern world. The CGI-created creatures that now populate these movies will never have the pure, stop-motion soul of the miniatures used in earlier films; somehow, especially as filtered through memory, those figures seem more real than real.
Yet the tortured behemoths of Godzilla vs. Kong do have their charms. Kong, his heavy brow bearing all the sorrows of the world, our primate brother in the evolutionary chain, has a few glorious moments here: At one point he floats dreamily into our field of vision on a ship — he is, sadly, sedated and restrained - to the strains of Elvis Presley's "Loving Arms." And Godzilla, his disproportionately tiny head filled with bitter thoughts, his spine a row of indignant spikes, just cannot stop himself from angrily stomping through cities. He doesn't mean to kill people with his atomic breath; they're just always in the way. Even his addled brain comprehends that only one other creature on Earth understands his true nature. He keeps his friends close and his enemies closer. As in pro wrestling, any fight to the finish is purely for show.
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