‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ serves up titanic battles, but leaves us wanting more

Filled to the brim with ferocious battles and beautiful landscapes, Godzilla vs. Kong proves to be a far greater Kaiju slugfest than any of its predecessors. It shakes off much of the unneeded filler that plagued other Monsterverse films, creating a much more focused experience. However, despite featuring more titanic clashes, it suffers from the problems that plague both kaiju films and versus films: a lack of deeper meaning and underexplored, ham-fisted motivations. 

After the events of its direct prequel, Godzilla: King of Monsters, the world has found relative peace. The terrifyingly mighty Godzilla has been out of the public eye since defeating the alien threat Ghidorah, and the other Titans have followed suit. Humanity takes this chance to rebuild and research, studying the regal King Kong, who has been kept in containment since his discovery in Kong: Skull Island. However, as the newly introduced technology giant Apex Cybernetics rises into prominence, Godzilla returns, destroying one of their research facilities without warning. As the beast leaves ruins in its wake, having struck seemingly without reason, humanity is left reminded of their weakness and must struggle to find a way to survive.  

With their facility targeted by Kong, Apex forms a response team, as CEO Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) concocts a plan to explore the Hollow Earth, the supposed hidden world of all Titans located deep within the Earth’s crust. He recruits expert Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), who realizes only one Titan is available to lead them to this secret world: Kong. He convinces the head researcher at Kong’s holding facility, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), as well as the last of the Iwi tribe, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), to bring Kong out of hiding into the greater world, praying that this plan will be enough to find some way to defeat the rampaging King of Monsters.  

At the same time, Madison Russel (Millie Bobby Brown) follows in the footsteps of her late mother, who passed away in Godzilla: King of Monsters, to protect Godzilla. Convinced there must be some reason for his attack, she brings her unwitting best friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) and recruits conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) to one of Apex’s labs, hoping to find a clue to Godzilla’s motivations. With the stage set, our two groups scramble to find either an answer to the reptile’s reasons, or a way to put the former hero down once and for all. 

After the melodramatic and intense King of MonstersGodzilla vs. Kong follows the trend of reducing the human characters’ roles while increasing the time spent watching these behemoths slug it out. The battles depicted are Olympian in nature and apocalyptic in damage, as entire cities are leveled in the clash of ape and reptile. Each fight is somehow better than the last, as the film hits the ground running with an incredible dynamic first engagement atop ships a la Neon Genesis Evangelion. Here the film shines, effectively combining the unique and varied movements of Kong with the raw strength and devastating blasts of the typically less mobile Godzilla. Never does any advantage feel forced or unearned, as both fighters are given chances to show what makes them so terrifyingly awesome.  

These fights are so much more than simple brawls. Each one is expertly presented to ensure both participants feel as strong as they should be. Where other films degrade their fights to regular slugfests, Godzilla vs. Kong somehow manages to consistently up the ante, making the titans feel like titans. Each blow creates a shockwave running through the air, every blast from Godzilla warps the space around it, every roar from Kong blows anything not tied down: these characters emanate power. In these fights, the narrative is at its strongest, and every blow provides more characterization than any of the filler lines that clogged each of the three previous films.  

Even though the fights are the main attraction, the film still finds a way to feel as hollow as the Earth it portrays, filled with cardboard cutouts of characters who exist only to take the challengers from battleground A to battleground B. While each actor does their best to add depth to the narrative, the dialogue does them no justice. Hottle’s Jia, whose relationship with Kong serves as the emotional backbone of the film, remains a stagnant character who undergoes little to no development. Her dynamic with the ape suffers from having been developed not only offscreen, but between movies. When she appears for the first time, she and Kong have gone through their growth together, and have minimal change in their relationship. As a result, their scenes feel half-baked, missing some crucial ingredient to provide them with a greater purpose.  

While the Kong side of the narrative suffers from these relatively static characters, the Godzilla side fares just as poorly. The trio of Madison, Hayes, and Valentine feels like a comedic break at best, and a bumbling group of novices who stumble their way into relevancy at worst. Brown’s Madison is impulsive and reckless, and while her dynamic with Henry’s Hayes is entertaining, there is little emotional depth to be found. Dennison’s Valentine is left worse off, as while his role as the straight man to the others’ antics is hilarious, it provides even less to the overall story. The small (and only) element of profundity to be found in any of these characters lies in Hayes’ devotion to his dead wife and promise to continue searching for the truth as long as his bottle remains full, but this is tossed aside at quite literally the final moment for the sake of a quick gag.  

This time around, the focus is very clearly not on the humans. This is a kaiju film that focuses on the kaiju. Yet it still seems to want to show the humans, for some reason or another. However, by not fleshing them out, these scenes go from boring but harmless in the previous films to outright upsetting in this one, killing any momentum that the narrative had built up. Any and all tension the film had built up, whether through the fights or through hints at a greater threat, is killed when the humans take center stage. One appreciates the greater emphasis on the titans, but since the film refuses to go all in, it leaves a sour taste not present in its predecessors. After all, those human moments do, in theory, serve a purpose: they provide the fights a sense of context. 

The film’s best storytelling comes from the silent details present in the background of every scene. The everchanging power dynamic between Kong and Godzilla is clear to see through the colors of the environment. Deep, vibrant oranges harken back to the aesthetic of Skull Island, symbolizing its king, while Godzilla is perpetually shrouded in a cold, dark blue, painting him in an eternally menacing light.  

From the very start, Kong’s status as the underdog is made obvious, as his small patch of orange sunsets is nothing compared to the vicious, raging storm that surrounds it, colored a deep blue. In their first battle, the water takes on this same shade, helping demonstrate Godzilla’s unchallenged power under the waves, as Kong’s orange only comes in through brief intervals during their clash atop the ships. Every time it seems like he has some advantage, Godzilla emerges, blocking out the fading orange light and bringing Kong deep underwater, surrounded by the blue that has come to represent the reptilian beast. Even after the fight ends, all that remains of a once-vibrant orange sunset is a dim yellow light, slowly fading into the horizon. Their next fight switches the status quo, as flowing magma of Hollow Earth creates a more passionate version of Kong’s orange, preparing him for his fight against Godzilla. At this point, Kong has found his ancestral home and the weapon of his people, he has become worthy of his title as King, and so the environment accentuates this with the burning shades of red and orange. However, once he emerges from deep beneath the Earth, neither he nor Kong have any advantage. Both fighters are equal, symbolized by a pitch-black sky, filled with technicolor lights belying the film’s true foe: Mecha Godzilla.  

However, these clear examples of “show, don’t tell” cannot save a story that feels recycled and bland after only three films. Like its predecessors, the main theme of Godzilla vs. Kong is humanity’s arrogance spelling their downfall while nature remains supreme. This would be a fine theme to convey if the film had tried to engage with it in any meaningful way, but it is merely used to give Godzilla a motive to fight and a reason for humans to get involved. Apex Cybernetics’ attempts to surpass nature and create Mecha Godzilla allow for an inconclusive finale by focusing on a third party that would quell both supporters, like most versus films of recent memory, but that is the extent to which the film uses this theme.  

The individual arcs of the film’s two protagonists, Godzilla and Kong, also vary in quality; Godzilla’s is practically nonexistent while Kong’s is arguably the best part of the movie. The only change Godzilla undergoes is his changing view of Kong from threat to ally, which only happens in the last few minutes of the film. Instead, Godzilla appears when the narrative needs an antagonist, filling space until the true foe is revealed, making the phenomenal clashes between him and the King of the Apes feel somewhat empty. Kong, however, has an entire film devoted to answering the questions left by Kong: Skull Island, such as where he came from and whether he will take on the legacy of his ancestors. It is this story that makes the narrative of the film engaging, outside of the massive battles. 

Kong’s time in Hollow Earth is a breathtakingly fun break from the intensity of the surface, with a few interludes for him to show his power after a curb-stomp defeat against Godzilla earlier. Before they arrive in his ancestral home, Kong has suffered capture from humanity and defeat from the King of Monsters. He is at his lowest point, and his struggles with being the last of his kind, which first appeared in Kong: Skull Island, make their return. There was little keeping him going, but the promise to find some sort of family and regain the worthiness he feels he lost drives him to push onwards, making the dive deep into the Earth’s core. He explores a land that feels all too familiar, a place he has never seen yet one that feels more like home than anywhere else. The massive trees and mountains give him a playground to run around in, and the monsters that fill this magical environment help him rebuild his shattered confidence. Everything starts to look up for him, until he reaches the center of Hollow Earth. As it exists in the center of the Earth, there is a point where gravity switches, with hundreds of little stones caught in-between the two sides. When Kong first arrives here, he is greeted by a massive stone statue of his ancestors, with an arm outstretched, ready for the king’s return. As he stares into the legacy of his predecessors, stuck far up in the sky while he is stuck in its shadow, his inner conflict is clear, as he battles with his feelings of worth and desire to live up to those who came before. In the end, his decision to reach up and jump into the arm of the statue completes the arc laid out in his standalone film, as Tom Holkenburg’s beautiful score conveys the relief Kong finally feels, no longer trapped in the shadow of the past, but standing above it, as gravity turns to place this statue underneath the king. 

Unfortunately, one good story beat does not a complex film make. Kong’s satisfying arc doesn’t make up for the lackluster exploration of the film’s main theme and the nonexistence of an equivalent arc for Godzilla.  

Godzilla vs. Kong is an odd beast. While it is narratively the weakest of all the Monsterverse films, it is also arguably the purest Kaiju film the series has created. Rather than worry about theming or small human conflicts, its eyes are set on these grand Olympian battles, painting them as the devastatingly strong and terrifyingly engaging clashes they deserve to be. But in its clear preference for sublime clashes over character arcs, it raises a fundamental question: are fights enough to make a good Kaiju film, or do we want more?