These guys. You just want to see them happy.
It’s hard to be so alone, and angry, caught up in an ancient Hatfield-and-McCoy grudge up on Earth’s inhospitable surface. Nothing comes easily up there, among the nattering human species, when you just want to go home to Hollow Earth, where (as Robert Frost said) they have to take you in, and you settle your differences with a jaw snap or a skull-crack. No exposition, no explanations.
Well into “Godzilla vs. Kong,” a solid roundhouse punch and the fourth film in the current run of Legendary Entertainment’s “MonsterVerse” franchise, we travel to the wondrous ecosystem at Earth’s core, where gravity goes flooey and Kong finally comes to know the green, green grass of home. It’s not exactly a lyric interlude; it’s just a minute or so of peace before it’s killing time again.
Ever since the fine, somber 2014 “Godzilla” directed by Gareth Edwards, which took its time and had the nerve not to overexploit its main character, the MonsterVerse movies have focused more and more on pure action. Sometimes it’s driven by the radioactive city-crushing lizard (“Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” co-starring Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah). Sometimes it’s Kong-centric (“Kong: Skull Island”). These galoots have been eyeing each other since “King Kong vs. Godzilla” back in 1962, courtesy of Toho Studios. The digital effects age was the stuff of evil scientists then.
But this is now. I really went for “Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island” (2017) and had a pretty good time with “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019). After the perpetual rain and dim lighting of that one, though, the open-air panoramas of “Godzilla vs. Kong” are most welcome, even if the human storylines struggle for attention against the title characters’ idea of abrupt urban redevelopment.
Both Godzilla and Kong have a hold on our collective sympathies. It’s no spoiler (it’s in the trailer) to point out that eventually these two must set aside their differences, in Hong Kong, to combat a common human-made enemy: Mechagodzilla. The script comes from Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein. Rebecca Hall, a tiny bit better (ahem) than her material, plays an anthropological linguist overseeing Kong’s “Truman Show”-like existence under human surveillance on Skull Island. Her adopted daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has a special bond with Kong, as the nominal male lead — the geologist and well-meaning doof played by Alexander Skarsgard — soon learns.
The weaselly billionaire head of Apex Cybernetics (Demian Bichir) sends his shark-like daughter (Eiza Gonzalez) to manipulate the activities of the do-gooders played by Hall and Skarsgard. Meantime, the daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) of a Monarch scientist (Kyle Chandler, perpetually on the outskirts) pokes around the Apex laboratory with a corporate whistleblower and underground podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry) and a fellow Godzilla nerd (Julian Dennison). Their scenes strain for laughs and tend to restate the same question: Why is Godzilla, humankind’s frenemy par excellence, in such a bad, destructive mood all of a sudden?
The big scenes make the movie, as if that even needed typing. Director Adam Wingard sets them up efficiently. About 45 minutes in, Kong squares up against Godzilla underneath, and atop, aircraft carriers at sea. (Loss of life, undetermined.) After the Hollow Earth excursion, which recalls “Fantastic Voyage” at slightly higher speeds, the Hong Kong climax sets up a two-against-one bout, and it’s a rouser.
Wingard’s work up until now has ranged, on low budgets, from “Autoerotic” (co-directed by Joe Swanberg) to “You’re Next” to “The Guest.” The creature realizations, the work of hundreds, are all that money can buy. The battles are exciting, reasonably brutal but not sadistic. Neither Kong nor Godzilla constitutes a bad guy in any sense; they’re just misunderstood. The relationship between Jia and Kong offers the film’s only real grace notes, at once shameless and touching (literally, finger-to-finger at one point).
Besides Mechagodzilla, “Godzilla vs. Kong” has an additional unwanted adversary. The global COVID pandemic has accelerated the Hollywood studios’ rush to send everything down their streaming platforms at the expense of a traditional theatrical release. Wingard’s film premiered last week in theaters, where available, and also on HBO Max. Go out? Stay home? I’m sympathetic to both options, just as I’m sympathetic to both monsters.
Either way: Even if “Godzilla vs. Kong” feels more a tad more mecha than human, it satisfies nonetheless. The MonsterVerse remains a better-than-average franchise, pulling enough variations on its theme of Titans, clashing, to keep on keepin’ on.
‘GODZILLA VS. KONG’
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language)
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Where to watch: Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max through April 30.
This article was originally published on the Chicago Tribune.