WARNING: SPOILERS FOR GODZILLA VS. KONG
As a life-long Godzilla fan, I lost it when Legendary Pictures announced that they had obtained the rights to not just Godzilla, but King Kong as well. Everyone knew what this match-up of characters was leading to: the rematch of the century.
King Kong burst onto the screen in 1933. This was one of the first full-blown special effects showstoppers; a film that combined the wonders of stop-motion animation with live action actors. The results were iconic. Kong was an incredible character that captured the audience’s horror and imagination. No wonder he has become a staple of American cinema. Then, 21 years later, Japan released Godzilla upon the world. The radioactive reptile served as a metaphor for the horrors the nuclear bomb unleashed upon the country. Both films were, obviously, extremely successful. Both films also had sequels that did not quite reach the height of that first film (1933’s Son of Kong, and 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again). Both characters then sat in the corner of their respective production offices until 1963, when Toho unleashed one of the greatest smackdowns in cinema history: King Kong vs. Godzilla. It would also be the first time either character was in color!
The production history of King Kong vs. Godzilla is fascinating and far too involved to go into in this review. Long story short, it started off as King Kong vs. Prometheus (a name given to Frankenstein’s monster). You read that right, King Kong vs. Frankenstein’s monster. Well, that obviously didn’t happen. But Toho was looking to revamp Godzilla. So they purchased the rights to King Kong from RKO Pictures, switched Prometheus out for Godzilla, and the rest is history.
I bring up the history of these two characters to emphasize how big of a deal this rematch is. This isn’t your average Godzilla film where he fights some new monster created for the film. King Kong was a character owned by a different company… from a different country! So the importance of these two forces coming together again after so long cannot be understated. But how does this knew version hold up? Well, it certainly captures the spirit of the original, and as long as you know what kind of movie you’re getting into, you should have a blast.
This is Godzilla vs. Kong. The title alone should tell you what kind of film you're going into.
This film is not meant to be some sort of deep-rooted metaphor. We came here to watch two titans of cinema duke it out with as much property destruction as possible. And boy, oh boy, does it deliver. Following the basic plot sees Godzilla attacking civilization in a way he has not before. This prompts a journey into the Hollow Earth (yes, you read that correctly) in order to find a power source strong enough to stop Godzilla. But the team (led by Alexander Skarsgard) needs Kong to lead them to this power source. And with Kong being a rival Alpha Titan to Godzilla, Alexander’s team also needs to be very cautious with how they move the big monkey. Meanwhile, Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown) follows clues in order to discover what is really provoking Godzilla.
This film is very interesting. It exist in Legendary's Monsterverse, a universe that started with a film about Godzilla, not Kong. The last film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), leads right into this film. And yet, this is Kong’s film, not Godzilla’s. The main storyline follows Kong and his journey into the Hollow Earth, not Godzilla and his attacks. So while the story may pick up after the last Godzilla film, in terms of character, this FEELS more like a sequel to Kong: Skull Island (2017). This is a very smart choice because it allows the audience to spend more time with the monster characters than past films. A major complaint from fans of kaiju (giant monster) films is the lack of screen-time the monsters themselves usually have. Godzilla himself only had roughly 8 minutes of screen-time in his 1954 debut film! By making Kong the main character instead of a human, this film is able to devote more time to the big gorilla without it feeling awkward. The choice to have Kong learn sign language was also a phenomenal one. This is the most intelligent Kong has ever been. It sets him aside from Godzilla and the other Titans and elevates our connection with him. That’s not to say Godzilla doesn’t have a personality. In fact, we get more emotion from Godzilla in this film than we have in pretty much any other. It’s great! But the film chooses to focus more on Kong. Kong is just trying to get home, he has no idea Godzilla is coming for him. It gives him much more of a sympathetic edge.
The Hollow Earth is a fairly cheesy idea, but it feels right at home in a universe about giant monsters. Kong: Skull Island introduced the theory of the Hollow Earth to this franchise, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters continued that thought by showing us Godzilla’s home; located in a flooded city that was once a part of the Hollow Earth. So now in this film, we finally get to see it in all it’s glory. I really enjoyed what we saw: the giant flying snakes, the throne room, the axe, the weird gravity… there is a ton of history here that we only get a glimpse of. It’s fascinating and raises so many interesting questions. Questions I hope we get answers to one day. But more than just being a neat story element, the Hollow Earth is also very much an homage to classic science fiction works like Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), The Lost World (1912), 20,000 League Under the Sea (1870), and The Land that Time Forgot (1918). Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were clearly inspirations. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good old-fashioned adventure movie and this film hits the spot in that regard.
Godzilla vs. Kong also realizes why people come to these movies in the first place: THE FIGHTS!
Sure, Godzilla (2014) had some good fights in the back half (if you have access to the 4K version that lets you actually SEE them) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters had some standout moments (like Rodan’s awakening and the fights in Antarctica and Boston), but they always cut back to the humans far too often. By using Kong as the main character, this film is able to forgo that issue. We are watching Kong fight, not the people. The humans may help him along the way, but this is very much Kong’s journey not theirs. Kong is the one that needs to defend himself from Godzilla, so of course we focus on him during the fights.
That first fight scene in the Tasman Sea is chilling. Godzilla acts like the shark from Jaws, tearing through anything and everything to get to Kong. The ship getting hooked to his tail even serves as a clever homage to when Quint shot the shark with a barrel in that film. Godzilla is ruthless in this scene, and very clearly comes across at the villain of the film. He wants Kong to submit, one way or another. I really appreciated how this film worked the two monsters’ strengths into each of their fights. Pitting Kong against Godzilla in the ocean is a terrible idea, as this is Godzilla’s home. He has home field advantage and boy does he use it. He nearly drowns our furry friend in a matter of minutes. Kong does much better in the second fight in Hong Kong. He uses the height of the buildings to his advantage. He also uses an awesome axe he finds in the Hollow Earth that is made from a former Godzilla spine to good effect. The 1963 film gave Kong electric powers in order to help him stand toe-to-toe with the radioactive lizard. Here, Kong is not given any extra powers; he is simply smarter. He uses tools and tactics and wins round two by knocking Godzilla out with a powerful blow to the head. Sure it knocks them both down, but Kong is the first one back up, grabbing his axe and preparing for the next fight.
Godzilla manages to win the third round by stomping on Kong’s chest, effectively stopping his heart; a move he used when killing King Ghidorah. So yes, Godzilla does win the fight. But I honestly think this was a great brawl. Each opponent had their strengths and used them very well. Kong has intelligence, dexterity, and the use of tools. Godzilla has armored skin, brute strength and radioactive fire. It makes sense that Godzilla won the fight, but that doesn’t mean Kong didn’t give him hell. Personally, I think the fights in this film rank among the best action scenes in the franchise. I’ve seen some people complain that the film favored one character or the other, but I think that it depicted each monster in a way that was both accurate to who these characters are, and logical within the universe created.
But a much more dangerous opponent is hiding in the wings. The power source from the Hollow Earth is successful in powering up the one and only MechaGodzilla! But this isn’t just a mere robot. No, this particular iteration is powered by the only surviving skull of King Ghidorah. And when the power source works a little too well, it wakes up Ghidorah’s consciousness who then takes over the machine. This was such a bonkers idea that has the perfect balance of scary and absurd. With Kong down for the count and Godzilla weakened from their fight, MechaGodzilla is simply too strong to defeat. Which brings us to the rousing finale that features Godzilla and Kong working together to defeat the extremely powerful machine. It is an action packed climax that gives you everything you could want out of the three-way fight. In fact, most of the back half of this film is fighting. And when you go into a film with “VS.” in the title, that’s exactly what you want. If someone complains that they wanted the fights to be longer, just remind them how short the fights in all the other films are by comparison.
But as exciting as the action in this film is, there are problems; mainly having to do with the human storylines.
I would KILL to have more of Ren Serizawa. His last name is the only thing that links him to his father, Ishiro (Ken Watanabe from Godzilla and Godzilla: King of the Monsters). I would love to have a scene that discusses what his father would have thought of him. I would have also enjoyed seeing more of Alexander Skarsgard’s character. He is tricked into going on the journey and at several points pretty much betrays Kong. And yet, once the two monsters start fighting, none of that matters. I wish we could have had a small moment where we see him react to being tricked.
The dialogue isn’t great, although it is better than in King of the Monsters. The dialogue here is, at the very least, self aware. This film knows what you came for. It knows it is goofy and doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is and I applaud it for that. King Kong vs. Godzilla is a full-blown parody of the kaiju genre. Letting this film follow in its footsteps was a smart idea. Madison Russell’s journey into the conspiracy of MechaGodzilla is filled with really silly moments. Silly, but in a lovable kind of way. Godzilla (2014) was a much more somber film that really nailed the metaphor of Godzilla being a force of nature. Yes, this film also does retain a little bit of that theme, but that’s not the focus. This is the fourth film in the Monsterverse, the audience already understands the metaphors; now we want the kaiju action.
Side complaint (sort of): I was honestly hoping to see more monsters. The last film gave us a main cast of Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra with a whole backup cast of other Titans. This film, by comparison, pairs that down. The first time I saw this, I was slightly disappointed. But after a second watch, I realized that this is for the best. This film really needed to focus on Godzilla, Kong, and MechaG. Any other monsters would have just simply fought for screen time and prevented the film from being as streamlined as possible. GVK doesn’t have the epic scope that Godzilla: King of the Monsters had. The whole world isn’t being affected this time. But that’s ok. This is more of a brawl film. I think the filmmakers did the right thing by focusing on the brawlers. Mothra’s inclusion would have more than likely only been there to establish her return in a later film. We don’t need that; and it would have felt like a waste of her character to only return for a brief moment (similar to how Martian Manhunter showed up in Zack Snyder’s Justice League and didn’t do much).
Godzilla vs. Kong might not be the best made film in the Monsterverse, but it is probably the most fun of the bunch. It’s goofy, but leans into it full-force. You either understand what kind of film you’re seeing, or get out of the way. If these sort of films aren’t in your wheelhouse then why did you turn it on? When it comes to the critical making of the film, it’s got some obvious flaws. All of these flaws relate to the human storyline, whether it be cheesy dialogue, two dimensional characters, or unnecessary humor. If I were to give this a strictly critical review, it would probably get a 7 or 7.5. But taking into account what kind of film this is, how well it does what it’s there to do, and my overall love of Godzilla, Kong, and all manner of kaiju films, I personally rank this film extremely high. So, if you want to turn your brain off and just have a damn fun time watching Alexander Skarsgard discover the Hollow Earth while Godzilla and Kong fight each other, then MechaGodzilla, WATCH THIS IMMEDIATELY! You will have a ton of fun!
Final Score: 9.8/10
Godzilla vs. Kong is available to watch now in theaters and for a limited time on HBO Max.
I was recently featured as a guest speaker on the Big and Small Media Podcast, hosted by Darren Mangold and Zachary Schmitt. I had a lot of fun talking with these guys about the film and I hope you have just as much fun listening. So if you would like to hear me ramble even more about this epic smackdown, click here.