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Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire

by Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic
Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire

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Godzilla and King Kong use to have a beef. Now that they’ve kissed and made up, there’s no real meat in this generic big creature smackdown.

Also, any production involving Godzilla or Kong now stands in the shadow of the Oscar-winning Godzilla Minus One. There’s no excuses anymore.  If writer/director Takashi Yamazaki can craft a heart-felt script with three-dimensional characters; if Yamazaki, Kiyoko Shibuya, Masaki Takashi and Tatsuji Nojima can conjure eyeball-entrancing visual effects so stunning they garner the ultimate achievement in artistry, an Academy Award—then any filmmakers who come after them can step up, if they really want to.

Something is riling the titan Godzilla, who’s been comfortably curled up and napping in Rome’s Colosseum. On the other side of the world, the young girl Jia (Kaylee Hottle, Godzilla vs Kong) is feeling weird. Cryptically, something is bothering her, a weird vibe. She’s also worried about her friend King Kong, who’s on Skull Island, his home. He’s being watched over by a team of scientists and a veterinarian named Trapper (Dan Stevens, Beauty and the Beast).

Jia’s adoptive mom, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebeca Hall, Resurrection and director of Passing), is the head of the Kong research division for the secret organization Monarch. She takes her daughter’s inklings so seriously she enlists the help of Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway), a weirdo conspiracy theorist podcaster whose show Titan Truths is obsessed with the mega monsters. Something is up—that’s the buzz.

Views of Godzilla and Kong aren’t entrancing. The overly obvious computer-generated trickery is telltale. In the latest Planet of the Apes franchise, it’s mind boggling how real the creatures look. In Godzilla Minus One, the big boy doesn’t look real, but there is something about him that appears organic and not like a cloud of effects. Also, in opening scenes, as Godzilla rises and travels, attacking nuclear plants and absorbing radiation for some unknown reason, planes and helicopters fly around his head. They look like a kindergartener’s toys.

As the film progresses and an enigmatic signal attracts action to the Hollow Earth, a hidden realm in the planet’s core, more beasts are unearthed. None look any more vivid than the two on the surface. The verdant underworld landscape is interesting (production designer Tom Hammock, Godzilla vs. Kong), but the music (Tom Holkenborg and Antonio Di Iorio), interior sets, flying capsules, costumes (Emily Seresin) and cinematography (Ben Seresin) don’t enhance those scenes. If there is a saving grace, it’s that the fights, battles and combat, which lead up to a do-or-die climax with Godzilla and Kong teaming up to for the big brawl, are well paced and measured throughout which should delight action/adventure/sci-fi fans.

Being original, innovative or deep is not part of the scope of the script by director/writer Adam Wingard (Godzilla vs Kong) and screenwriter Terry Rossio. E.g., the chit-chat on the space craft that flies Jia, Bernie, Tanner and Dr. Andrews to the center of the world and the Monarch outpost, is banal. The shuttle is flown by the gruff pilot Mikael (Alex Ferns), a mean taskmaster: “Try not to swallow your tongue.” Bernie, the scared passenger: “What?!!” Tanner is blasé. Jia hopeful. And Andrews is in charge. Words and character development don’t get much deeper than that.

Wingard’s direction settles on the spectacle of the over-sized fights, but none are truly astonishing. The only reason anyone’s heart will beat fast is because the loud soundtrack (Erik Aadahl) tends to make up for what is not visually impressive. Also, some of the fights take place on dazzling international locations, from the Pyramids to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Pour on the fanciful geographical locations, action, pummeling, bites, body slams and a little deep freeze wizardly and hope for the best.

Fala Chen as Iwi Queen has a majesty about her that gives the film some moments of dignity. Hottle displays an innocence that is beguiling. When Mikael meets an abrupt ending viewers will giggle.  That’s a sign that Ferns did his job as the aggressive bully. Steven’s interpretation of Tanner remains steadfast throughout—cool, collected and high on life, while Henry’s interpretation of Bernie seems too buffoonish.

The glue in the cast is Hall. The first time she appears on the screen you wonder, “Who is she?” Your mind searches through your memory banks: Neighbor? My kid’s teacher? Star of a TV show? Hall has that every woman quality that makes her feel familiar even though you don’t know her. That’s what made Julia Roberts a star back in the day. That quality will give Hall a long career.

As the footage heads to its one hour and 55 minute conclusion, any hopes of watching something extraordinary or Oscar worthy are gone. Any dreams of fresh material, which would make this fifth film in the MonsterVerse a standout, are dashed against the rocks of Queensland Australia, where the movie was shot. Ordinary direction, shallow writing and a production team that can’t make anything look, sound or feel distinguished bury what could have been good. It’s possible the little TV screen will be more forgiving than the big movie house screen.

Maybe the bromance between the reptile Godzilla and primate King Kong was a mistake. Maybe audiences will leave theaters invigorated but wondering, ‘Where’s the beef!’

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