If you’re anything like me, you’ve been waiting to see Kong again since Kong: Skull Island. I loved that movie, its sense of mystery and its heart, and I was really hoping that Godzilla vs Kong would bring back some of that energy to the MonsterVerse. And it did not disappoint. Sure, the most recent addition to the series does have a lot of the same flaws as Godzilla: King of the Monsters—underdeveloped characters, a by-the-numbers plot where you can predict every moment of ahead of time, and faux science that strains suspension of disbelief even by popcorn flick standards. But it’s also a lot of fun! It introduces some new people to the cast of the titans’ allies, touches on some deeper themes, and has really great action sequences.
[Contains some minor spoilers for Godzilla vs Kong.]
The film opens to find Kong living under a protective dome that Monarch has erected around his island home. Kong is not impressed, but scientist Ilene Andrews (played by Rebecca Hall) is convinced that this is the best solution for Kong because if he goes out into the world, Godzilla will surely come for him, because of the whole apex titan thing. Meanwhile, after leaving humanity alone since the events of the last film, Godzilla suddenly resurfaces to attack Florida, specifically the site of the advanced cybernetic company APEX. No one knows why, but Madison Russel (Millie Bobbie Brown) is determined to find out, with the help of conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) and her friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison).
The film unfolds along these two parallel plotlines, with Ilene and the disgraced geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Sarsgård) traveling with Kong to look for the ancient origins of the titans at the center of the Earth, while Madison, Bernie, and Josh try to find out the real reason Godzilla has it out for APEX, and what the corporation is hiding. What’s fun about this is that the adventures of the Kong team feel reminiscent of those in Kong: Skull Island. These scenes are a bit slower in pacing, and spend time on themes of scientific exploration and how Kong should be treated by those who have designated themselves his protectors. The stakes feel real and personal, and although Lind’s character is pretty flat, there are some good scenes between Ilene and Jia (Kaylee Hottle) a little girl from Kong’s island. Meanwhile on the Godzilla side of things, Madison is failing to get her dad’s attention and running off on her own to solve the mystery of human corporations who think they should be more powerful than the titans, very much like in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The dialogue is more pithy, the scenes a bit faster, and of course we see a lot of humans running from Godzilla as he wrecks some coastal cities.
It’s actually kind of fun to call the next action scene or plot development before it happens, so I didn’t really mind the very by-the-numbers script: We’re all here to see big monster battles, not complex mysteries. Still, there were a few missteps that were hard to overlook. The film has only a single Japanese actor with a speaking role, just like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the character is actually the son of Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa. Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri) is given even less to do than Dr. Sherizawa was; he’s basically just there to lurk suspiciously behind Apex’s founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), and the ultimate trajectory and fate of the character is disappointing to the point of feeling disrespectful.
The character of Bernie Hayes is great when his undercover work is focused on blowing the whistle on the shady doings at APEX, but the character also spouts other, more wild conspiracy theories; he takes showers in bleach to protect him from some kind of organic nanotech he’s worried about, and he insists that fluoride is put into the water supply to make the populace slow and docile. I couldn’t tell if the writers were trying to make a dig about that time Trump accidentally suggested bleach could be used inside the body to fight COVID-19 or what, but the whole thing felt in bad taste, and even dangerous. Considering today’s anti-vaccine, anti-science movements, it seems irresponsible to give these opinions to a hero character whose other theories are proven right—and which Madison at least tacitly supports—even in a relatively mindless action film. The same complaint goes to Nathan Lind’s character.
However, there are a lot of gems in the film as well, including a good deal of humor. Brian Tyree Henry is a joy to watch, and although the film did not, in my opinion, give Julian Dennison enough screen time, he is also lovely in the role, and the two bring a lot of humorous banter to what otherwise would only be exposition and characters boggling at titan-related tech.
Kaylee Hottle is incredible in the role of Jia, a young deaf girl from Kong’s island who he rescued and with whom he has a deep emotional bond. Hottle is also deaf, bringing accurate representation to the film, and she plays the character with deep and yet subtle emotion that elevates any scene she is in. It takes a lot of talent to have that much on-screen chemistry with a giant CGI ape. Ultimately, Hottle’s performance as Jia, and Jia’s relationship with Kong, brings some human connection into a film that treats most of its characters as two-dimensional tropes. And it’s a fitting upgrade to the concept of King Kong, whose first film in 1933 had him developing an almost romantic attachment to a white woman, to give him a deep friendship with a little girl who belongs to the same island as he does. I wish the film had acknowledged a little more directly the fact that two white adults were using a native child (whose people were decimated by imperialist intervention) to get what they wanted from Kong, but overall the story is still a moving one.
And of course, the real star of the film is Kong. His intricately, almost lovingly rendered CGI expressions draw the audience in, make us understand him and feel for him much more deeply than I expected to. I winced when he felt pain, cursed at the screen when the humans treated him badly, and ultimately rooted for him the way I would for a beat up old prize-fighter in a really good boxing movie. I wanted him to win, not just in his physical battles, but in his life: Kong has lost a lot since the outside world first came to Skull Island and forever changed his fate. And although my threshold for city-wrecking battles is perhaps not as high as some, given how ubiquitous they are these days, I found all his encounters with Godzilla to be fairly interesting and fresh—no small feat when both combatants are entirely digital. Each battle felt different than the one that came before it, and more dire, right up to the climax at the end of the film. Kong’s expressive body language really had me empathizing, even worried, whenever he was on the bad end of Godzilla’s teeth or claws or tail. And Godzilla always has the most terrifying smile right before he hocks up one of those nuclear loogies.
It may be a while yet before most of us are able to go back to seeing movies on the big screen, but the visual scope of Godzilla vs Kong did a pretty good job of reminding me what that experience feels like, and made me long to be sitting in a real theater when the next MonsterVerse film come down the pipeline. And that is a very good thing.
Godzilla vs Kong is available to stream on HBOMax.
Sylas K Barrett is the author of Reading the Wheel of Time, a weekly series here on Tor.com. He is also a regular contributor to the Is It Transphobic Podcast, and can be found on Twitter as @ThatSyGuy.