Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire Review

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Release date: March 29, 2024 (USA)
Director: Adam Wingard
Distributed by: Toho Co., Ltd., Warner Bros. Pictures
Based on: Godzilla and Mothra; by Toho Co., Ltd.
Box office: $567 million
Music by: Tom Holkenborg; Antonio Di Iorio

Each one of the latest kaiju epics in English from Legendary Pictures has taken a different route, and “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” keeps up the tradition. This is a direct sequel to 2021’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” a simple film based on Toho Studios’ 1962 movie “King Kong vs. Godzilla” that had the big lizard fight the big ape before turning them on a robot foe together. But in “The New Empire,” instead of merely repeating the template, returning director Adam Wingard and his two co-writers present a more fragmented and sometimes knowingly silly narrative, cross-cutting between lines of action in multiple locations that all lead to a huge showdown with many creatures.

Artistically it’s the most hit-or-miss entry in the current MonsterVerse, lacking the cohesive and distinctive vibe that powered all of the others, whether it was the 2014 “Godzilla” (basically “Close Encounters of the Godzilla Kind”), “Kong: Skull Island” (a bizarro riff on Vietnam movies), “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (the first “team-up” entry, with lots of family melodrama stirred in), or Wingard’s original, gloriously goofy Godzilla-Kong flick, which owed quite a bit to 1960s exploration sci-fi like “Journey to the Center of Earth” and 1980s Hong Kong and American action thriller/buddy films where two main guys have to have fistfight before they team against dangerous villain.

Rebecca Hall’s anthropologist Ilene Andrews is this time around’s main character who takes care of her adoptive daughter Jia (Kaylie Hottle) while trying to figure out what connection is between mysterious energy pulses detected on Monarch Project’s monster-measuring tech and frenzied drawings that Jia has been scrawling on school desks and scratch paper. The answer—uncovered with help from muckraker/conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), another character from last movie—is back to the “Close Encounters with Godzilla” idea, suggesting that what they’re all experiencing is a combination distress signal and warning of an impending catastrophe. As hinted in trailers and other promotional material, there’s secret civilization giant Kong-like primates kept captive somewhere within unexplored section Hollow Earth, plotting their breakout and takeover surface world. Their leader is a scarred sadistic despot who enslaves his own kind in mining operation inside hellish volcanic cavern, set which confirms filmmakers have seen “Indiana Jones Temple Doom” more than once.

As someone who’s championed this franchise since start, it’s my unfortunate duty to say that “Godzilla x Kong” is all over the place, barely getting up correct head of steam before cutting something else away. It makes “King Monsters” look single-mindedly on-message. And it’s even more filled with redundant wooden “make sure everybody in audience understands everything happening at all times” exposition than previous films. The confrontations are stirring and often brilliantly choreographed, especially the climax — a multiple-monster main event while lots of other creatures bustle around margins. The live-action motion capture performances are mostly marvelous, dialogue notwithstanding Wingard rushing through sequences whole relationships might’ve been extraordinary had they been presented with patience elegance.

Dan Stevens is a welcome addition to the cast. He plays an adventurous poet who used to date Ilene, who remains famous as the world’s only ex-kaiju veterinarian; we meet him extracting Kong’s bad tooth by rappelling into it from a hovercraft. (I think it was either Shakespeare or Freud who said that a man with a toothache can’t be in love; this movie posits that a giant ape with one can’t save the surface world.) He has real chemistry with Henry, whose dialogue often sounds ad-libbed even when it isn’t; there are moments when they seem in danger of cracking each other up and ruining a take. But the film doesn’t do much with their connection, or build it into anything truly memorable.

A greater missed opportunity is Kong’s relationship with a big-eyed little scamp of an ape that he meets while exploring Hollow Earth though what we do see of it is performed by motion-capture performers and FX teams with imagination and care. The younger ape is essentially an abused child who grew up in a cult and thus is treacherous, selfish and cowardly; he suddenly has, courtesy of Kong, a good parenting model in the form of this hairy burly single dude who lives alone and has no parents (that we know of), but still treats him with patience and compassion even when he doesn’t deserve it, and makes something like a decent primate out of him. Adam Sandler has made this movie many times before. It also echoes what’s happening between Ilene and Jia the latter reconnecting with her own roots, Ilene getting sadder as she realizes she may be growing past her need for her but with two adoptive parents instead of one set against none at all. Two different sets of challenges; same basic story: could’ve done more; didn’t.

On the minus side: The CGI creature skins look more cartoony than in previous installments. And the script brings on its genuinely terrifying and charismatic villain, Skar King (a swaggering preening rotter who looks like he was played via time warp by Gary Oldman in the ’90s) too late to give him and Kong a chance to build and flesh out their antagonism, as the last film did with Kong and Godzilla’s relationship. It’s still fun fascinating, even to watch that slow revelation of Kong’s value system, and realize how starkly it contrasts with his evil doppelgänger’s behavior; but Kong should’ve felt cathartic here, not like narrative box-checking: decency over despotic cruelty.

If the movie had more ape content throughout, it would have been a lot better. I mean, that stuff really lands. What annoys me about this film is how little it realizes its own strength. A wiser movie might have concentrated on the apes rendered and characterized as vividly as possible and the humans who follow them, to the point of excluding Godzilla, who in this case mostly functions as an intermittent destroyer of cities (the movie cuts away to him regularly because it’s called “Godzilla,” after all). (He does occasionally do things like use a pro-wrestling suplex to slam an enemy into the ground and sleep curled up in the Roman Colosseum like it’s the world’s largest dog bed.) If you’re down with this series’ “what the hell, let’s try it” attitude toward reconfiguring giant monsters from pop culture, there will still be plenty for you here. But you shouldn’t need to be told that by anyone.

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