Review: GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE: All Kaiju Action, All Kaiju Time

Released three years ago at the height of the pandemic, Godzilla vs. Kong, the kaiju battle royale to end all kaiju battle royales, ended not unexpectedly, if somewhat disappointingly, in an uneasy truce between the Big G (Godzilla) and Kong (first name King), temporarily allied to defeat Mechagodzilla, a corporate-created, -owned, and -operated cybernetic monstrosity. Task completed, Godzilla and Kong parted ways as neither friends nor foes. The result might have let Godzilla or Kong fans down, but the fourth MonsterVerse entry was never going to end in anything except a draw or stalemate, at least not where the combined IP of two beloved characters (currently 38 for Godzilla and just 13 for the original kaiju himself, Kong) was concerned.

But that was then. In the now, much-anticipated, ludicrously entertaining sequel, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, the erstwhile allies remain divided temperamentally and geographically, Godzilla defending the natural world above from various ill-behaved kaiju (“titans” in the MonsterVerse) while Kong rules the recently discovered Hollow Earth below. Or rather, as the largest, most powerful predator with an enviably large brain, Kong rules by default, defeating — and occasionally eating — the other oversized predators who threaten his habitat. Kong uses a fair measure of cunning, including carefully laid traps, to overcome packs of ravenous, long-toothed predators.

And when he’s finished for the day, Kong — like any anthropomorphized, hygiene-obsessed primate — showers in a waterfall fit for a gorilla king, takes a mid-day nap in the sun, and otherwise enjoys a low-effort, high-reward lifestyle. That doesn’t last, however, as a recurring toothache compels Kong back to the surface world and the free dental care he receives under the auspices of Monarch, the super-secret, kaiju-monitoring organization introduced in Kong: Skull Island, and their generous healthcare package (we should all be so lucky). That development, in turn, reunites him with Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the last survivor of the Iwi people (Skull Island’s one-time/longtime resident human population), and her adopted mother, Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a senior Monarch anthropologist and linguist.

While Kong’s getting the best dental care available, thanks in part to an adventurous veterinarian, Trapper (Dan Stevens), Godzilla goes about its business on the surface world, mostly oblivious to the needs or wants of the human population that occasionally gets in the way of its battles against other, lesser-known kaiju. Like Kong down below in his Hollow Earth kingdom, Godzilla enjoys mid-day naps in the sun, especially in the Roman Coliseums (no one says no to Godzilla).’

Despite the promise implied by the title, Godzilla plays a secondary, supporting role in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Kong gets the bulk of the screen time and along with that time onscreen, a fully realized character arc. Long acknowledged as the last of his kind — at least on Skull Island — Kong’s loneliness has long been his defining trait, but when he encounters a rambunctious, poorly behaved mini-Kong (one of the film’s highlights), Kong’s future begins to look a little brighter. That lasts as long as it takes for a group of giant-sized gorillas to attack Kong. Kong unsurprisingly survives, but once he encounters — and fights — the so-called Scar King, a balding, red-haired primate who rules a volcanic kingdom with the help of a subjugated reptilian kaiju, Kong realizes he can’t the battle alone.

It’s become a given in the MonsterVerse that the human characters, whatever their motivations, desires, or backgrounds, are, at best, function as either kaiju fodder or narrative placeholders, the latter linking kaiju-focused set pieces. Not surprisingly, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire doesn’t stray from that now obligatory formula. Relegated to the role of Chief Exposition Giver, Rebecca Hall ably delivers reams of lore-related dialogue with reasonable conviction, though at least her character gets an arc involving the future of her relationship with her adopted daughter. Understanding the assignment, Stevens gleefully embraces his character’s under-motivated, absurd presence within the narrative. Likewise, albeit to a lesser extent, Bryan Tyree Henry and his returning character, Bernie Hayes, a courage-impaired conspiracy theorist (who’s often right), add a modest dash of comic relief.

To be fair, the presence — or lack thereof — of human characters will be hardly noticed (if it’s noticed at all) by audiences who venture to their local multiplexes to catch Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire on the biggest screen currently available. They’ll get exactly what they both expect and want: Wall-to-wall spectacle-driven almost completely by kaiju-on-kaiju action, all of it generated by budget-straining server farms and the visual artists tasked with bringing Godzilla, Kong, and the other kaiju to fully realized digital life. They succeed more often than not, delivering wrestling-inspired action set-pieces that will warm even the coldest of cold kaiju-skeptical moviegoers.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire opens theatrically on Friday, March 29th.

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