Apart from Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a little girl from Skull Island who can communicate with Kong and becomes distraught when he does, none of the characters’ anxiety and paranoia leave much of an impression. Every bit of dialogue serves only to help explain why a dinosaur with radiation breath must fight an overgrown ape. I realized, as Kong swung his radioactive ax (he gets a radioactive ax) at Godzilla’s tiny lizard head, that I’d missed the sweet simplicity of a popcorn movie. This film is not meant to be watched, but to be gawked at. The camera swoops underwater as Godzilla drags Kong beneath the ocean; it crouches under their bodies as they spar on land; then it zips close to their faces to capture their snarls. Godzilla hurtles into a skyscraper, glass raining down on his back. Kong leaps off a battleship to avoid a burst of his enemy’s atomic breath. Their fights take place against spectacular backdrops too: The ocean showdown happens at sunset, golden hour illuminating the waves. Their nighttime clash in Hong Kong is lit in neon, giving the pair an otherworldly glow. The film is hectic, noisy, and maximalist when it comes to its inhuman stars. During a scene in Hollow Earth, Kong decapitates a winged monster and lifts its head above his mouth so that he can, like a drunken medieval lord, guzzle the gooey green blood that pours out of its neck, before belching in victory. The entire sequence is gross, yet so, so glorious. I wanted to rewatch it immediately.
Read: Why you should watch the (actual) original ‘Godzilla’
But—yes, I’m afraid there’s a but—the movie is, in some ways, a disappointment. Taken on its own, Godzilla vs. Kong is a serviceable action spectacle. Taken as part of a collection of movies about mythical characters who symbolize existential crises, however, the film is a sign that the MonsterVerse (the franchise shared by Warner Bros. and Legendary studios) has given up on its original artistic ambition of reimagining the classic films of decades past. The first film, 2014’s Godzilla, established a secret government agency called Monarch, which studies titans but also risks threatening their safety and habitats. Monarch has appeared in every film, but observations about the perils of human curiosity and discovery have waned with each successive entry, even as the visual effects of today have made characters such as Mothra and King Ghidorah look more astonishing than ever.
As with other modern franchises, each installment has recruited a different director behind the camera. But the MonsterVerse has allowed its filmmakers to put their stylistic stamp on their projects and pursue unusual, unexpected scenarios for their gargantuan leads. Gareth Edwards’s aforementioned Godzilla reboot featured more shots of its actors gaping up at the sky than of Godzilla himself, to the dismay of some viewers. Yet it also wove in poignant observations about inherited trauma and depicted the terror of being confronted with the smallness of the human species. Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and released in 2017, riffed on Apocalypse Now; the film was set at the end of the Vietnam War and featured a particularly hammy performance from Samuel L. Jackson as a Colonel Kurtz–like figure driven mad.