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Godzilla vs. Kong
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Now Now, You Two—Use Your Indecipherable Grunts!"
4 stars

When King Kong and Godzilla (I presume that no further introduction is required) first faced off in the 1962 film “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” the stakes were sufficiently low enough at the time—it only marked Godzilla’s first screen appearance since 1955’s “Godzilla Raids Again” and Kong had not been seen at all since his 1933 debut—that it didn’t really matter which one of the two creature features favorites triumphed since it was so obviously a one-off meeting with no discernible future. In fact, the actual outcome was of so little consequence to the film as a whole that the single most memorable thing about it beyond its title was the urban legend that sprang up around it that claimed that two different endings were filmed—U.S. audiences got the one where Kong triumphed while Japanese viewers saw their hometown hero victorious. (Although there were two different versions of the film—there was a version for the U.S. market with scenes featuring American actors cut into the proceedings a la the original “Godzilla” but both ended on the same note with Kong seemingly walking away victorious with the suggestion that Godzilla would rise again to fight another day.)

In the case of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” however, the stakes are entirely different and lead to a hurdle as large and inescapable as the title characters. Now, rather than a one-off exploitation film meant to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of Japan’s Toho Studios, the film in question is the hugely expensive conjunction of the two current branches of Warner Studios’ so-called MonsterVerse that has thus far encompassed the surprisingly inventive “Godzilla,” the disappointing “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019) and the hugely entertaining “Kong: Skull Island” (2017). Since both franchises are presumably set to continue on for as long as the box-office grosses justify them, you cannot have Kong decisively defeating Godzilla or vice versa without effectively destroying one lucrative income stream along the way. Therefore, “Kong vs. Godzilla” has to figure out a way of living up to the promise of its title in a way that doesn’t offer up too specific a conclusion while at the same time not annoying audiences who will be turning up expecting exactly that. The dramatic acrobatics employed to pull this off may not always work, especially for monster purists, but the whole thing is just goofy and entertaining enough to work as an example of jumbo-sized popcorn entertainment.

Those who have complained about the previous MonsterVerse films for keeping the creatures under wraps a little too long will no doubt be relived to know that the title stars both turn up within the first few minutes this time around. We first get a glimpse of Kong going though his morning routine on Skull Island under the watchful eye of a research team led by Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who is also the adoptive mother to Jia (Kaylee Hottle), an adorable deaf native girl who was the only survivor of a storm that decimated the human population of the island and who has developed a special friendship with Kong. Meanwhile, after years of calm following his defeat of Ghidorah in his last appearances, Godzilla has suddenly reappeared off the coast of Florida and lain waste to a facility belonging to Apex Cybernetics, a massive tech conglomerate that couldn’t possibly be up to no good at all.

Enter handsome scientist guy Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), who has written a book theorizing that Kong, Godzilla and other so-called Titans are from a vast underground world dubbed Hollow Earth. Convinced that this world may hold the secret to controlling and containing such creatures—again, purely for altruistic reasons—the completely up-and-up Apex chairman, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir)—offers to fund an exploration of this land, which can be accessed via Antarctica, and supplies state-of-the-art technology and his own obnoxious daughter, Maya (Eiza Gonzalez). Inevitably, Kong is required to help lead the expedition and so Ilene, with Jia in tow, agrees to the journey. Meanwhile, back on the home front, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), the spunky teen from the last “Godzilla” film, is convinced that Apex just might be hiding something and goes snooping with classmate Josh (Julian Dennison) and Bernie (Bryan Tyree Henry), a paranoid Apex employee who broadcast a clandestine podcast determined to reveal all about his employer.

Between introducing all of these characters—and I see that I have neglected to mention both Apex’s shadowy tech genius (Shun Oguri) and Madison’s worried dad (Kyle Chandler)—it takes about 40 minutes or so for the first confrontation between the titular creatures (who have some ancient rivalry that is often whispered about but never exactly explained), a punch-up at sea that finds Kong busting out a couple of “Die Hard”-style moves before essentially ending in a draw. From there, the surviving members of the expedition land in Antarctica—with the same amount of unseen ease utilized to get Kong on the boat in the first place—and take the plunge into Hollow Earth, a vast wonderland featuring creatures both fantastic and deadly, mysterious energy sources and a giant axe that is, a guess, has always been a thing for Kong. I would not dream of revealing anything that happens from this point but if you are guessing that Apex turns out to be completely altruistic and that Godzilla and Kong eventually sit down to work out their differences with their words, I would gently suggest that this may not be the movie for you.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the preliminaries to the various monster bouts—especially the film’s opening 40 minutes or so—are the weakest elements of the film. The Godzilla-centric side of the story is dumb and tedious, especially the stuff involving the conspiracy freak employee who is clearly supposed to be funny and who never is, and when Apex’s ultimate plan is finally revealed, it somehow manages to be both utterly absurd and strangely underwhelming. The Kong section of the narrative is a little more solid in its construction and execution but while I appreciated the fact that the screenplay was taking pains to establish the big ape in purely sympathetic turns (as he should be), I just wish that the writers could have figured out a slightly more subtle manner of establishing this than by having him befriend and bond with a deaf moppet.

“Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island” managed to avoid these pitfalls by creating characters and situations that were engaging enough to hold interest even during the downtime between the big action beats but everything here along those lines is pretty much rote at best and mildly dire at worst, though at least it is ultimately better than “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” Director Adam Wigand has recruited a fairly impressive cast here—if you were an actor offered a chance to appear in a film featuring Godzilla and King Kong together, would you turn it down—but in pretty much every case, they all seem to be going through their motions as quickly and competently as possible in order to get to the carnage that everyone is waiting to see. (The one standout is Bichir, whose ability to chew all the available scenery is pronounced enough to make him a formidable opponent for Kong or Godzilla all by himself.)

That said, no sensible person has ever chosen to go to a movie with a title like “Godzilla vs. Kong: for the intricacies of the plot or the various shadings that the actors attempt to lend to such deathless lines as “Kong bows to no one.” No, they are primarily there to see the two behemoths beating the crap out of each other and any other similarly-sized creature that happens along, hopefully wracking up unimaginable amounts of property damage in the process. It is in these scenes that the film truly comes to life and while the results may not be particularly groundbreaking or contain any moments of true crackpot beauty or originality, it is undeniably fun to watch the two of them duke it out in a colossal manner—the best of their tussles coming in a skirmish amidst the neon-lit skyscrapers of Hong Kong that almost suggests what might emerge if Michael Mann was put in charge of a kaiju epic. And while the whole Hollow Earth element could have used further embellishment, what we do see is intriguing enough to hope for a return to explore it in more detail one day.

Look, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is not going to go down as one of the great monster movies of our time—it lacks the grandeur and poetry found in classics like the original “King Kong” and “Godzilla” and it lacks the audacious creativity found in such recent kaiju classics as “Shin Godzilla” and “Colossal.” It is, when all is said and done, an overcalled contraption designed to exploit two core assets at once while presumably setting up future adventures for both of them down the road. On that level, it sort of succeeds and while watching it, I had a silly grim on my face for most of it. “Godzilla vs. Kong” may be cinematic junk food when all is said and done but while you may not be too proud of some of the things that it is asking you to follow, it all turns out to be surprisingly satisfying, at least in the short run, in the end.

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originally posted: 03/30/21 02:00:00
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User Comments

4/07/21 KingNeutron Oh no there goes Tokyo -- visually spectacular, worth seeing just for Hollow Earth 4 stars
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