Godzilla vs. Kong is absolutely everything you want — everything you need — in a monster movie. And I don’t just mean that it has giant monsters fighting and destroying cities, humbling the works of man, etc. Though it definitely has that.
No: GvK has it all. Monsters, of course. Conspiracy theories that turn out to be true. Area 51–esque shit. Lost continents. Cute kids who Know Things. Nerdy-hot scientists. Spectacular science-fiction visions for a better world… and an asshole capitalist who wants to keep it all for himself and must, therefore, be taken down.
GvK has a cast of amazing, terrific actors who treat this nonsense with the earnestness that it warrants… which is quite a bit, let’s be fair, if we’re being honest geeks. And yet they are never so solemn that the proceedings descend into the risible. There is humor here, but never cheese. There is warmth here, but it’s never absurdly sentimental. There is a very difficult line to be walked with movies like this one — which is about nothing more and nothing less than an enormous gorilla battling a gigantic prehistoric nuclear-fire-breathing lizard for supremacy — and this one gets it perfectly right. I mean, Alexander Skarsgård (Long Shot, The Aftermath), as researcher and academic Nathan Lind, manages to transform conversations about hollow-earth theories into high drama, while also being light enough to sell a joke that’s a bit grossout-y, while also being adorably self-deprecating about it all.
Okay, I say that this isn’t about anything more than King Kong fighting Godzilla for the title of Earth’s apex predator. But of course there is subtext at play. (I’d like to think that that was inevitable, that movies like this are just naturally about more than what they seem to be about, but somehow 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the previous installment in the MonsterVerse series, managed to extract all possible allegory from its sorry proceedings.) As in 2014’s Godzilla, no one utters the phrases “global warming” or “climate change” here, but that’s what GvK is about under the surface, and in a way that sharpens and strengthens and deepens the metaphor in ways that no one in 2014 might have anticipated would ring true.
For one big thing — which I absolutely love, and which brings a trope of the old Japanese monster movies up to the moment — there’s a kid here, Jia (wonderful newcomer Kaylee Hottle), perhaps eight or nine years old, who is in the middle of every single second of chaos and danger and monster battles. Not because she just happens to be unlucky enough to find herself where the monsters are, but because she is actively brought along into the fray. By multiple adults. No one ever says, “Should she be here? Maybe we could have left her with a babysitter?” There is simply never any question whatsoever of the necessity, of the authenticity of her presence. She is the adopted daughter of Kong-whispering scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall: Mirai, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women), who lets the kid hang with Kong on Skull Island because they’re pals, and, sure, there is some valuable plot necessity in that, because Jai keeps the ape calm(er than he might otherwise be) when they have to take Kong off Skull Island, because Reasons. After that, though, Jai really could have been tucked away somewhere safe, far from the monster front lines. Except… is anywhere safe when the whole world is threatened? (Jai has already lost her parents to the horrors of Skull Island… so she’s also an indigenous person with a personal understanding of the wrath of nature.) The stakes here are very big-picture, very whole-planet, and Jai has a relationship with Kong that mirrors the relationship of the Greta Thunberg generation with the global environment: The grownups have fucked everything up and show little inclination to start wising up, so now it’s up to the kids to make the world a better, safer place for themselves.
Without spoiling too much — there are some terrific surprises in GvK! — Jai is a very specific portrait of a generational shift that might be obvious in retrospect, but isn’t one that was widely foreseen even as recently as 2014’s Godzilla. Jai represents the possibilities of treating nature with a new sense of reverence and, more importantly, with respect for its own inherent value, not for what it can do for us. The “titans” here — Godzilla and Kong, with others hinted at that may be dangers to humanity as well — are harbingers of a natural world that will not bow to us and that will fight back if provoked. But we can partner with nature, as Jai does with Kong and teaches the adults around her to do, if we can manage that with awareness of and consideration for its power, and for its own fundamental integrity. (A whole ’nother running motif, in multiple threads, is about attempts by us small apes to replicate nature, to one-up nature, even… and how such projects will always fall short of reality, or even fail utterly.)
And then there’s teen Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), not just returning from KotM but reclaiming her character’s agency. In the previous movie, she was little more than the usual action-movie female pawn of men’s villainy: she was kidnapped by the bad guy as a way to motivate her scientist father (Kyle Chandler [First Man, Game Night], also returning), as if the potentially civilization-ending rampages of titanic monsters wasn’t enough. But now, Madison teams up with conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry: Joker, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and, along with her goofball pal Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison: Deadpool 2), they go in search of the secrets of tech tycoon Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir: Alien: Covenant, Lowriders), who is definitely not three Elon Musks in a trenchcoat. Again, not to spoil too much, but the name of Simmons’s megacorp, Apex, is kinda a hint of just what level of competition he thinks he can bring to the titans…
Anyway *snort* at one point Dr. Andrews says, “There can’t be two alpha titans,” which is… an interesting way to look at so much that happens in Godzilla vs. Kong. Always we misunderstand even the things we are trying to learn more about, until it snaps into focus in ways we never anticipated. We never seem to remember that lesson, however often we are taught it.
• Godzilla movie review: sympathy for Gojira
• Kong: Skull Island movie review: ape-ocalypse now
• Godzilla: King of the Monsters movie review: gives new meaning to the phrase “disaster movie”