Opening Wednesday in theaters and on HBO Max — where it will be available for one month — “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the fourth movie in the MonsterVerse series, and a solid blast of dumb fun.
The previous movies included the serious but oddly forgettable “Godzilla,” from 2014, its awful sequel, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” from 2019, and the best of the series, the clever, brilliantly acted “Kong: Skull Island,” from 2017.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” opens with very little setup, dropping us in on a big batch of characters, all busily in the middle of doing whatever they do.
Viewers may wonder if they’ve forgotten characters from a previous movie, or if maybe there was another movie in there they missed, but take heart. These are all new characters, except two: intrepid teen Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her father, Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler).
As it begins, Godzilla appears and attacks the headquarters of Apex Cybernetics. Everyone assumes it’s an unprovoked move, but Madison knows better.
So does podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), who works undercover at Apex, trying to dig up the corporation’s dirty secrets. Madison teams with Bernie and her comic-relief pal Josh (Julian Dennison) to find out more.
Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is an anthropological linguist who appears to be in charge of Kong. The great ape is now kept inside a huge dome with fake sky and clouds projected overhead.
Andrews has an adopted daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who is the last surviving native of Skull Island. Jia speaks only through sign language, and can apparently communicate with Kong.
Kong has figured out what’s going on and has taken to hurling trees like darts into the air and destroying panels in the dome. Even so, Andrews insists that they can’t leave, because the moment they do, Godzilla will come. Simple enough.
That’s where Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) comes in. He’s a geologist who believes in the theory of a “Hollow Earth” where giant monsters come from. Lind is approached by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), the not-to-be-trusted CEO of Apex, promising to fund an expedition there.
There’s mumbo-jumbo about a reverse gravity field, which requires super-cool modified helicopters, courtesy of Apex. They also need an actual titan to lead the way.
Fortunately, Lind and Andrews are old friends, and Kong is henceforth boarded onto a huge aircraft carrier, bound for the entrance to Hollow Earth.
Amid all this plot, the movie takes a few ridiculous shortcuts, such as getting Bernie, Madison and Josh from the U.S. to Hong Kong in time for the climax, but these are somehow magically easy to forgive.
At around the 45-minute mark, director Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” and “The Guest”) realizes that we may not want to wait anymore, so Godzilla pays a visit to the ship and the battle is on, right in the middle of the ocean.
Kong doesn’t seem to be able to swim and must stay perched on the decks of the nearby fleet of ships, but he still gets in a couple of deeply satisfying punches to Godzilla’s face.
These two titans first battled in 1962 in Ishiro Honda’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” but back then they were merely men in suits. Now they are intricate layers of visual FX, sophisticated enough to give Kong a distinct personality; the battle has emotional weight to it.
But, naturally, since both Kong and Godzilla have been cast as good guys, it comes to pass that they must eventually team up to fight an even bigger baddie at the climax, and, given Godzilla’s deep catalogue of gargantuan opponents, it’s an inspired choice. (Hint: It’s not the Smog Monster.)
“Godzilla vs. Kong” is mostly nonsense, but Wingard adopts just the right tone, avoiding the heaviness of the first “Godzilla” with some whiffs of humor, and also sidestepping the crushing stupidity of the second “Godzilla” by simply embracing the silliness.
A veteran of horror and suspense, he hits all the right notes and keeps up a good pace, juggling the variety of characters and plotlines and still managing to wrap it up at under two hours.
It’s a slick, clean-looking movie, avoiding shaky-cam and highlighting action scenes clearly. The monsters move beautifully, and we get a clear, strong impression of their intense weight and size.
A highlight of any giant monster movie is watching buildings and property being randomly and mindlessly destroyed, and it’s endlessly impressive here that just the slightest flick of Godzilla’s tail or a misstep by Kong can rip several stories out of the middle of a skyscraper.
But Wingard also makes the humans seem… human, which is something that “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” utterly failed to do; in that film, characters either shouted expositional dialogue to one another or simply stared slack-jawed at the heavens.
Here the characters never seem to take anything too seriously, and even Bichir seems to be having a good time playing his evil corporate slimeball.
The original 1933 “King Kong” and 1954 “Godzilla” movies were actually about something. They were about man’s destructive nature and tendency to meddle with nature, as well as various other, subtler themes.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t subtle, and isn’t about much of anything, but it sure is a diverting ride.
Godzilla vs. Kong
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry
Written by: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein, based on a story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes