In 1933, “King Kong” changed filmmaking forever with stop-motion animation, the first original feature film score and iconic imagery atop the Empire State Building.
In 1954, “Gojira” delivered a giant nuclear lizard destroying Tokyo with Cold War commentary repurposed for Hollywood in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (1956).
Now, the two beasts collide in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which premiered in theaters and HBO Max on Wednesday, delivering a monster movie spectacle better suited for the big screen where epic CGI battles thankfully mask clichéd human characters.
Written by Eric Pearson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) and Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”), the script opens with an impressive bit of slow disclosure in King Kong’s habitat to acclimate us to the story. Similarly, the opening credits feature a March Madness-style bracket of Godzilla and Kong slaying different monsters as a rapid refresher of recent events.
Even so, there is no “previously on” intro like television, so newcomers might want to go back and catch up on “Godzilla” (2014) and “Kong: Skull Island” (2017).
If you come in completely fresh, you’ll probably wonder where these creatures came from and how the world became so adjusted to them roaming the earth, chuckling at cable news outlets reporting on “Godzilla making landfall” as if it were a hurricane.
As the script enters Act Two, we journey to the center of the earth like Jules Verne to a hidden realm known as Hollow Earth, which birthed these creatures. Here, the jungles are lush, but we sadly spend more time in the dark, dreary, underground dwellings.
To the script’s credit, it finds cool ways to “science it up,” particularly the HEAVs, specialized hover vehicles that can withstand the pressure of Hollow Earth’s reverse-gravitational effect. On the downside, the robotics rip off major elements of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” (2013), only this time Idris Elba is nowhere to be found.
Instead, we get two main groups of human characters competing in parallel action.
The first is an adult team of experts hired by Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), the conniving founder of Apex Cybernetics. We despise his cruel daughter Maia (Eiza González), but root for theorist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), anthropological linguist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted deaf daughter (Kaylee Hottle).
Far more likable is the rag-tag group of rogue explorers, consisting of Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) as the crackpot techie Bernie Hayes, Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”) as the podcast-inspired teenager Madison Russell, and Julian Dennison (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) as her brave but nerdy pal Josh Valentine.
While we relate to the teens’ curiosity, the adults feel like stock characters delivering clichéd lines with no surprises about who is going to die as their comeuppance. That’s not to say there isn’t a comfortable familiarity to the proceedings; sometimes it’s reassuring to turn off our brains and watch things play out exactly the way we expect.
All right, enough about the human characters. Folks are watching for the monsters! Here, the movie 100% delivers. Director Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”) stages killer battles between Godzilla and King Kong, knocking over the neon towers of Hong Kong like action figures demolishing Lego towers with a fun homage to the 1933 original.
The graphic design of each creature is amazing, as we see each individual hair on Kong’s fur, while Godzilla glows with blue nuclear radiation. It shows the astounding advancements in CGI since Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” (1998), whose most memorable contribution was a “Kashmir” remix by Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page.
Even better than the visuals is the sound design, which rivals “A Quiet Place” (2018) and “Sound of Metal” (2020) in its use of silence to show the deaf girl’s perspective. Here’s hoping the sound team is at least remembered come Oscar time in 2022.
In the end, “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t an awards movie; it’s blockbuster entertainment. Surely, it’d play better on the big screen. At home, we paused to make popcorn and let the dog out, although the $14.99 HBO Max subscription was cheaper than the theater.
The streaming genie is out of the bottle, but as we forge ahead in our new hybrid world, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is a fitting creature feature to help the industry roar back.