If all you seek are giant monsters punching each other, don’t let me prevent you from seeing the heart-stoppingly stupid but sporadically entertaining Godzilla vs. Kong. The fourth entry in Warner’s loosely connected “MonsterVerse” brings these two legendary beasts face-to-face long enough to be serviceable turn-your-brain-off fodder. And clearly, lots of attention has been paid to making sure the creatures look … well, “realistic” isn’t quite the word, is it? But there is something exciting about the perfectly rendered computer-generated streams of water dripping off every one of the many millions of computer-generated hairs on Kong’s computer-generated body, not to mention the infinite computer-generated crags and jags of Godzilla’s computer-generated scales. There is grandeur in it. I would happily spend half a day watching a computer-generated King Kong romping and splashing around in slow motion in a big body of water. (Still, I do miss the guy-in-a-rubber-suit era.)
But who the hell are all these people, and why the hell are they here? When Godzilla vs. Kong isn’t showcasing monster throwdowns, it mires itself in a barely coherent multicharacter story about a search for a magical world deep, deep beneath our planet’s surface called Hollow Earth, where the so-called Titans (the monsters) originally hail from, and where the mysterious, probably sinister Apex Cybernetics hopes to find a power source that could help defeat Godzilla. The giant lizard, once seen as humanity’s protector, has begun attacking our cities (specifically: Pensacola), and nobody quite knows why. Rogue geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) wants to use King Kong — currently under a giant, Truman Show–style containment dome on storm-ravaged Skull Island — to help guide the humans to Hollow Earth. To do so, he enlists the aid of scientist and “Kong whisperer” Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), who brings along her young, deaf, adopted daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), an Iwi native from Skull Island who seems to have a special bond with the giant ape.
Meanwhile, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), who was saved by Godzilla in the previous film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and her friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) connect with Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a wild-eyed conspiracy-theorist podcaster, to investigate strange happenings at Apex Cybernetics and get to the bottom of why Godzilla has turned its back on humanity. (And because Madison has returned in this film, we need a couple of pointless scenes with her father, played by Kyle Chandler, who gets to stand around and not really do anything.)
The story and dialogue might have been written by a 12-year-old, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the cast could convey the wonder and invention and absurdity of the material. But the performances vary from frustratingly flat (Hall and Skarsgård) to thoroughly annoying (Brown, Dennison, and Henry) to virtually nonexistent (Chandler), which, given the galactic level of talent involved, suggests that the fault lies with the screenplay or the direction. (Sample line: “The Hollow Earth aerovehicles are on their way to Antarctica as we speak. I know you people think you’re cutting-edge, but these prototypes we’re loaning you will make what you’ve been flying look like used Miyatas. Forget about the price tag, which is obscene, of course. The anti-gravity engine alone could produce enough charge to light up Vegas for a week. Feel free to be impressed.” With sub–James Cameronian exposition dumps like that, I’m gonna go ahead and blame the script.) The only person who looks like he’s having fun is Demián Bichir, playing the scheming head of Apex Cybernetics, eager to establish human supremacy over the Titans. He spends almost the entire film in a control room standing around guzzling whiskey, and if you told me he came to set for just one day, I’d believe you — but his grandiose line readings seem pitched precisely to the level of silliness this movie demands.
The party line is that humans aren’t supposed to matter all that much in movies like Godzilla vs. Kong, which is why it’s surprising that there are so many of them here. It’s also not hard to sense a missed opportunity. At their best, giant-monster movies are also disaster movies: We enjoy the spectacle of kaiju mayhem, that cinema-of-attractions frisson of immensity combined with unchecked destruction — but it’s deepened and made richer by the additional spectacle of ordinary (well, “ordinary”) people trying to survive all that chaos and maybe even put a stop to it. This is not a necessary feature of the genre, to be sure, but when it works, it adds urgency and emotion to the goings-onscreen. The problem with Godzilla vs. Kong is that the filmmakers seem to think they’re delivering characters and human drama when all they’re doing is irritating the shit out of us.
But then it goes back to the monsters, and things are okay again. Mostly. The creatures’ first confrontation, in which Godzilla attacks a convoy of ships that are transporting Kong, is suspenseful and inventive: Chained to a boat and unable to attack or flee, Kong finds himself a sitting duck while Godzilla tears its way through the vessels, splitting destroyers with one slap of its tail. That sequence is the high point of the movie because it incorporates a real, tactile world we recognize into the creative, well-crafted havoc. But by the time Kong has headed to Hollow Earth and retrieved a glowing magic ax and seated himself on the ancient throne of his ancestors, you can practically hear the executives salivating over their dumb Tolkienizing of the MonsterVerse, and any connection the film might have had to the real world dissipates. There’s more fighting after that, of course. And a big climactic three-way battle (I won’t say with whom) against the digital neon Hong Kong skyline looks great, even if the destruction remains mostly generic and the humans weirdly hollow. Whatever. King Kong has a magic ax now. Enjoy.