How the film “Godzilla vs. Kong” plays depends to a certain extent on whether you’re Team Kong or Team Godzilla. Team Godzilla might be disappointed because this film focuses on King Kong and the girl who he means to protect, Jia. If you’re a scientist, then you’ll have to throw all analytical thinking down the Hidden World hole and let it float into an upsy-daisy world of changing dimensions.
There’s enough exposition for you to understand “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but if you want to get a quick background, here’s the highlights.
A Brief History of Kong
The first cinematic King Kong (“the eighth Wonder of the World”) of the 1933 film was weirdly infatuated with a lithesome blonde, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Their meet-cute works like this: The Skull Island natives decide to not sacrifice their chosen “bride of Kong” when a group of White explorers drop by. They instead kidnap Ann to take her place. Kong kills a T-rex to save Ann and ultimately dies after being shot down from the Empire State Building (which is the length of that Evergreen cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal) after kidnapping Ann and setting her safely down. (“Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”)
The object of Kong’s affection in the 1976 re-make was Dwan (Jessica Lange in her first film role), who was also drugged and kidnapped by the island natives, to turn over to Kong as a sacrifice. This Kong climbs the South Tower of the World Trade Center while Dwan tries to stop people from shooting him down. Kong falls and dies on the roof of the World Trade Center plaza. Jeff Bridges starred opposite of Lange.
In the 2005 re-make, Ann Darrow was played by Naomi Watts with Adrien Brody as the man she falls in love with. When Kong goes on the rampage, he takes Ann and climbs the Empire State Building only to be wounded by airplanes and fall to his death. Carl (Jack Black) says, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” These were all before the Warner Bros. (distributor) and Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse.
In between, there were other Kong films including the 1962, Toho Studio “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (キングコング対ゴジラ). Their battle is, where else? Mt. Fuji. The battle ends up in the sea. Godzilla disappears and Kong swims back to Japan. Did Godzilla die? In Japanese, we aren’t even sure if there is one Godzilla or more.
The first MonsterVerse film was the 2014 “Godzilla.” In this iteration, Godzilla is 350-feet-tall. This is the biggest Godzilla ever, but brings with it a few logistical problems such as passing through streets. The production team totally ignores these gaps in logic. If you’ve been to Tokyo or San Francisco, this will make you think twice.
This film begins in 1954 (that’s almost a decade after World War II and the August 1945 atomic bomb explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan), the same year that the ill-fated Daigo Fukuryō Maru (第五福龍丸) in real life was contaminated by the US Castle Bravo nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll (1 March 1954). The 23 members of the tuna fishing boat crew all suffered from acute radiation poisoning. This incident has been credited as the catalyst for the creation of Godzilla as a warning against nuclear power.
The Legendary film reframes the disastrous destruction of an eco-system as totally justified. A deep sea expedition accidentally awakens Godzilla and the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests were attempts to kill Godzilla. Godzilla survives so Project Monarch was formed to covertly research Godzilla and similar monsters. How you keep a 350-foot monster whose every step is a seismic event a secret is never clearly explained. Flash forward to 1999, scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) of Monarch discovered two giant eggs in the Philippines. One has already hatched and the creature causes a seismic event at the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant There, American supervisor and lead engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) must lockdown wife’s team of technicians to prevent a nuclear disaster. His wife (Juliette Binoche), a nuclear regulations consultant, dies with her team.
There is no explanation as to why a Japanese nuclear plant would need an American supervisor or a French regulations consultant but the whitewash is real. Fifteen years later, Joe, who has remained in Japan researching the Janjira disaster, convinces his remarkably well-adjusted son, US Navy Officer Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and kid in San Francisco and join him as he attempts to retrieve information from their old home in Japan. The two end up at Janjira and discover a massive monster made a chrysalis in the facility. After feeding on the reactors for 15 years, it’s ready to emerge. As the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism Emerges (MUTO), it causes more destruction and kills Joe.
Ford informs Project Monarch scientists that his father had been following what seem to be echolocation signals from Janjira. The MUTO was communicating with something, presumably Godzilla. The MUTO and Godzilla meet in Honolulu and briefly battle, but the MUTO is determined to get to the Mainland. Serizawa figures out that the MUTO has located the other egg, stored at a nuclear waste site in Nevada. This MUTO decides that Las Vegas could use some re-arrangements on its way to meet the MUTO in San Francisco.
One MUTO builds a nest in Chinatown, but Godzilla prevents this mating of MUTO by battling them. Ford destroys the nest. Godzilla saves the day and after a brief beach nap, heads back. Humans celebrate the big G as a savior and King of the Monsters.
In the 2017 “Kong: Skull Island,” an Asian person is the first person killed (a contradictory “diversity” movie trope) and we don’t even see it. The surviving White guy tells the audience about his death in passing. The film begins in 1944 with a US pilot Hank Marlow (Will Brittain) fighting a Japanese pilot Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi. Both end up on Skull Island after a giant primate interrupts their dogfight. Flash forward to 1973, and a team from Monarch searches the newly discovered Skull Island for primeval creatures. For diversity, the team includes Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston) along with seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) who plants to prove his Hollow Earth theory. (An older Brooks, played by Joe Morton, appears in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”)
The team meet the Iwi natives and the older Marlow (now played by John C. Reilly). Gunpei died, having been killed by a Skullcrawler. The Iwi believe that the 104-feet-tall Kong protects the island from the subterranean Skullcrawlers that have killed all of Kong’s species. Kong battles the Skullcrawler and with some human help wins. The survivors (which does not include Packard), leave the island. Conrad and another party member, photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), join Monarch. Monarch biologist San Lin (Jing Tian) and Brooks inform them that Kong isn’t the only monster in this universe. At the end of the film, to foreshadow the sequel, from cave paintings, we see depictions of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah.
Reportedly, Tian had a bigger roll, but it was reduced in rewrites. This may be an unfortunate pattern.
In the 2019 “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” two new scientists appear: Monarch paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her ex-husband, Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler). Mark is an animal behavior and communication specialist who used to work for Monarch and co-invented Orca, a means of communication with the Titans, but with the potential to control them. Emma and their 12-year-old daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped in China by a eco-terrorists headed by former British Army officer Alan Jonah, just as they have witnessed the birth of Mothra. Monarch scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Dr. Vivienne Graham ask former Monarch employee Mark to help track them down.
Jonah uses Emma to free Monster Zero (King Ghidorah) in Antarctica, but Godzilla leads the Monarch team there. Godzilla and Ghidorah do the monster mash and part ways. Graham dies. Emma believes that the Titans must be awakened to heal the earth, and next awakens Rodan in Mexico. Godzilla and Rodan battle King Ghidorah separately. Godzilla is severely wounded, as Ghidorah awakens all the sleeping Titans who, recognizing Ghidorah as the alpha and submit to its rule.
Twin Chinese researchers, Ilene Chen and Ling (Zhang Ziyi in duplicate), mythologists working at Monarch, realize that Ghidorah is a prehistoric alien seeking to change Earth for its own existence and Godzilla is the Earth’s protector. To save the Earth, the Monarch team track Godzilla to his ancient deep sea home and help Godzilla heal faster by detonating a nuclear warhead. During this operation Serizawa dies. Mothra and Godzilla battle Ghidorah. When Ghidorah seems to be winning, Mothra gives her energy to Godzilla and Mark, Emma, and Madison use Orca to lure Ghidorah away, giving Godzilla a chance to recover. Emma dies, but Godzilla defeats Ghidorah and the Titans bow to him. The Titans help heal the earth, but another egg is discovered and some of the Titans decide to take a tropical vacation at Skull Island.
But what about Jonah? He’s purchases Ghidorah’s head. Another sequel hint is the ancient cave paintings also show Godzilla and Kong battling it out.
Now you’re ready for “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the MonsterVerse version.
The Main Event: Godzilla vs. Kong
Five years after Godzilla killed Ghidorah, the rest of the Titans have disappeared and Godzilla and Kong are the only Titans roving the Earth’s surface. Monarch has built a dome over Skull Island to monitor Kong. The new scientist is Dr. Ilene Andrews who observes Kong while caring for her adopted daughter, Jia, the last of the Iwi (Skull Island natives). Jia communicates with Kong via sign language. Played by hapa Kaylee Hottle, who is hearing impaired and fluent in ASL, Jia brings the Asian presence, but in a way that makes little sense. And Kong has weirdly been growing larger. He has to in order to battle Godzilla. (For this film, Godzilla is reportedly 394-feet tall with Kong 335 feet.)
There’s another organization who wants in to the Titan game: Apex Cybernetics. Conspiracy theorist podcaster Bernie Hayes has infiltrated their Pensacola facility as a technician. When Godzilla attacks there, he finds an Orca-like device (from “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”). Despite the death of her mother in the last Godzilla flick, Emma has not become a Disney princess. She’s the child of an inattentive dad, Mark. With her friend Josh, she tracks down Bernie and this threesome sneak into the Godzilla trashed Apex facility and discover there’s something deep underground: A container of Skullcrawler eggs (the bad creatures of the “Skull Island” movie that killed all the Kong species) is sent through an underground subway to Hong Kong. No idea that that ticket costs, but I can tell you, there will not be a notable Asian or Asian American presence despite the locale.
The son of the late Japanese scientist Ishirō Serizawa, Ren, is part of an experiment using the head of Ghidorah to telepathically control a mechanical version of Godzilla, Mechagodzilla. But to complete the experiment, Apex executive Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) need to harness an energy source from the Hollow Earth, a place no one has been before. He turns to former Monarch scientist, Nathan Lind, the top Hollow Earth theorist whose brother died exploring the Hollow Earth. Lind goes to Skull Island and convinces Ilene to help because Kong needs a new home. Lind wants Kong to go to the Hollow Earth. Kong is chained and sedated and placed on an oversized barge. Godzilla attacks Kong because of the Apex Predator theory (from the MUTO film “Godzilla”). Kong is airlifted to the Hollow Earth entry point in Antartica. Jia convinces Kong to enter the tunnel where he falls until he doesn’t when gravity reverses itself. The team of researchers follow in specialized vehicles.
In the hidden world of the Hollow Earth, we don’t find more Kongs or Godzillas, but Kong does get to accost some prehistoric reptiles. This has almost nothing to do with the battle above ground, but Kong will meet Godzilla and the Mechagodzilla will come into play.
As with the other films, there’s a weird disconnect with this clash of the Titans and the cities they destroy. It’s not just in how these gigantic creatures can squeeze through the streets but when they step on buildings, the architectural integrity holds, but a sideways nudge makes them crumble. At times when the Titans grapple, the sizing seems inconsistent.
Director Adam Wingard (“Death Note”) keeps the action flowing although not fast enough for us to ignore some inconsistencies. There are some beautiful moments between Jia and Kong as well as poster-worthy battle scenes. Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s script doesn’t give much depth to the human characters, even the parental relationships are short-changed. There seems to be a vague attempt to examine father-child relationships: Apex co-founder Walter Simmons and his Apex executive daughter Maya (Eiza González), Madison and Mark Russell and, to a totally unsurprisingly untapped extent because the film gives less background than the press notes, the late Serizawa and his son Ren. Ilene Andrews and Jia seem to have the healthiest relationship, even as the sign language communication between Jia and Kong makes little sense considering how small Jia is in comparison. The 13-year-old Hottle gives an earnest performance, but her hand signals are for Kong on a microscopic level. Her character’s backstory is also unexplored, making her seem as little more than a plot device that is thankfully relieved of that weird cross-species attraction (although the song that introduces the pair is Bobby Vinton’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea” and later Kenny Rogers “Loving Arms”) and instead casts Kong as a protective force. Further, the Apex versus Monarch angle is thin.
Zhang Ziyi (as the twin mythologists seen in “Godzilla: Kong of the Monsters”) and Jessica Henwick were cast according to a 2018 article in EmpireOnline.com, but neither appear in the final cut. There’s no answer to who built the caves, painted those paintings or made that cool Kong weapon.
Team Godzilla, our well-loved reptile doesn’t have enough screen time, but the battle doesn’t disappoint and if I was attending a comic-con, I’d be first in line to buy this version of Mechagodzilla. The greatest disappointment is that the pandemic closed down 4DX, the best way to experience any Godzilla flick, past or present. Seeing both MonsterVerse Godzilla movies in 4DX was a game-changer.