Let them fight? No. LET THEM BE FRIENDS!

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire had me feeling like a little Donato again; sitting on the couch, cradling a bowl of sugary cereal, with my favorite Saturday morning cartoons on TV (like Godzilla: The Series). Will the screenplay win an Academy Award? Hell no. Does director Adam Wingard have an absolute blast staging supersized Titan mayhem? Big time. 

Godzilla: Minus One satisfied our cravings for societally introspective and richly commentative kaiju narratives that produce more than citywide destruction. Godzilla x Kong is almost exclusively about everything Toho’s Oscar-winning Godzilla flick is not. The only thing missing from this royally massive rumbler is famed ring announcer Michael Buffer’s “Let’s get ready to rumble!” catchphrase and a ring bell’s ding each time mayhem erupts. That’s the energy Wingard brings — the definition of Friday night popcorn entertainment.

Screenwriters Terry Rossio, Jeremy Slater, and Simon Barrett crack a teamup scenario where Kong and Godzilla must unite to protect humanity from unknown Hollow Earth adversaries. It’s not particularly complex because why bother — you’re here for the smashies and the brawlies. We're talking about a kaiju flick that starts with Kong’s dentist visit, and the glorious introduction of Dan Stevens as the Ace Ventura lookin’ Titan veterinarian known as Trapper. That’s not even a joke. Kaiju toothaches and telepathic signals kick things off; Kaylee Hottle’s Iwi orphan Jia receives mysterious messages like a radio tower intercepting foreign frequencies. Cue the partnership between Rebecca Hall’s Dr. Ilene Andrews, Brian Tyree Henry’s Bernie Hayes, Jia, and Ilene’s kooky ex-boyfriend Trapper (because the movie needs a few humans to explain what little plot connectivity exists).

Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise has long had a people problem, but Godzilla x Kong minimizes the damage by letting the kaiju be more than combatants. Kong’s never felt more human; the camera catches Kong in humorous, almost sitcom-like situations. Long stretches of the film are just Kong hunting nightmare rodents in Hollow Earth or sharing buddy comedy moments with a new friend, Suko (a rambunctious and feisty juvenile “Mini-Kong” who appears in Hollow Earth). Wingard’s attentiveness to Kong’s personality — the monkey’s facial expressions as he bonds with Suko or the tag-team chemistry shared with Godzilla — brings us closer to the monster than ever before. Kong and Suko could carry an entire movie by themselves; compassion comes easy for Titan characters who can’t speak, yet are surprisingly emotive through glances, smirks, and bodily signing motions.

It’s the kind of kaiju movie where Godzilla takes power naps in Rome’s Colosseum like a cat curled in its circular bed because these kaiju are just gigantic, wanna-pet-’em animals. The way Wingard views his Titans is wholesome and inviting, not reducing them to screechy and violent creatures with only skyscraper obliteration on their minds.

However, there’s not much to say about the Monarch employees, stepmothers, and conspiracy podcasters beyond their functions for plot advancement. Wingard clearly understands that the best kind of Dan Stevens role is a weirdo Dan Stevens role, which is Trapper in a nutshell. Stevens chews through scenery like an all-you-can-eat buffet, especially when exploring his adorable bromance with Henry’s woefully unprepared plus-one to the expedition. Wingard lets Stevens off the leash, whether he’s pondering aloud existential anecdotes or dangling from an aircraft, all smiles, while rock music blares in the background — but it’s not enough for a blanket pass on character development. Hall and Hottle share a mother-daughter warmth played in basic dramatic beats, which isn’t exceptionally riveting. Henry tags along for perfectly apt if predictable comedic relief, a skittish tourist in Hollow Earth. There’s still a shallowness to Kong’s human counterparts that won’t have you thinking about them long after the credits, but maybe that’s by design.

What exists in terms of kaiju battles is everything we could want from Godzilla x Kong. Without spoiling too much, it’s like a scaled-up Planet of the Apes influenced by professional wrestling. Windgard’s disregard for worldwide landmarks is well documented as Godzilla and Kong topple pyramids or trample Rio de Janeiro underfoot, as Earth’s only hope causes extensive collateral damage during their final stand. Kong receives a mechanical gauntlet augmentation that brings the thunder, while Godzilla supercharges their atomic powers by harnessing the surging energies of bisexual color schemes. It’s all absurd, but the appropriate amount of absurd for an epic collaboration between two of cinema’s O.G. heavyweights. Godzilla x Kong has it all in kaiju epicness terms: suplexes, Skar Kings, icy-breathed pets, fan favorites and cutthroat rivalries.

Hollow Earth provides a gorgeous panorama in small doses, but the digitally rendered visuals, while exotically appealing, start to numb our senses. There’s so much pixelated animation used that photographic composition blurs together. Some views are astonishing as Hollow Earth’s floor and ceiling mirror one another; glistening crystals sprout from lush jungles where extraordinary beasts roam. Kong looks aces, Godzilla looks excellent, and the other supporting kaiju all look incredible, but fantasy wilderness settings homogenize at times with so many computerized location models. Here’s where that Saturday morning cartoon comparison stings a bit, because while special effects never approach the word “terrible,” Hollow Earth can become repetitive as a glamorized backdrop.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. Wingard’s direction is like a giddy child playing with his favorite action figures in the backyard. There’s no surprise to what you’re in store for, which is quite alright — we’re allowed a “big dumb” monster movie treat now and again. Godzilla x Kong is kaiju comfort food that lets Kong and Godzilla shine as Titans with more to live for than territorial violence. Wingard clearly loves this franchise and its monsters; that enjoyment is infectious. Come for the kaiju chaos, stay for Dan Stevens’ scene stealer, become an instant Suko fan, and leave with a smile.

Movie Score: 3.5/5

  • Matt Donato
    About the Author - Matt Donato

    Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.