Film Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

Two iconic Titans clash in the latest chapter of Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse series…

A monstrous clash: two cinematic titans collide in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (image credit: Warner Bros’ Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kaylee Hottle, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Eiza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri

Directed by:  Adam Wingard / written by:  Eric Pearson & Max Borenstein (story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields) / 117 minutes

What’s it about?

The King of the Monsters faces the King of Skull Island as Apex Titans Godzilla and Kong grapple for their place as the victor…

In review

Not since Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice has there been such an anticipated cinematic smackdown between two titanic pop culture icons and thankfully Godzilla vs. Kong delivers.  The latest entry in the Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures ‘MonsterVerse’ series, Godzilla vs. Kong is grandiose, bombastic fun (embellished by Tom Holkenborg’s music score) and fully embraces its roots, melding epic scale action with the bonkers, outlandish B-movie comic book sci-fi (complete with flourishes of ropey character dialogue and moustache twirling villainy) of Japanese kaiju films with the worldbuilding and ancient mythology of King KongGodzilla vs. Kong therefore succeeds by just being what it is – a big, dumb roller coaster popcorn blockbuster that doesn’t falter in its efforts to entertain.  It’s unlikely to sway the opinion of anyone who hasn’t enjoyed 2014’s Godzilla, 2017’s Kong:  Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla:  King of the Monsters but for fans of those films it’s a satisfying treat.

Opening with Godzilla seemingly going on the offensive against humankind as he demolishes a facility owned by the shady Apex Cybernetics, the Monarch organisation, having captured Skull Island’s Kong for study and fearing untold devastation should the two Titans meet, hastily draws up plans to return Kong home.  Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) delivers the incredible effects-laden action with aplomb and with clear joy and enthusiasm (the recently announced ThunderCats feature film is in good hands).  From Godzilla and Kong’s scintillating initial face-off, an ocean-bound, battleship-sinking clash to the city-crumbling decimation of their brawl amongst the searing neon-lights of Hong Kong it’s all kaiju fans would want or hope for and an enthralling sugary delight for that inner-child.

Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s screenplay provides a functional framework to drive the narrative from point to point (alas lacking the post-war nuclear terrors and environmental concerns allegorically woven into classic Godzilla flicks) between the various showdowns of the two Apex Titans.  As was the case with the previous MonsterVerse instalments, the script draws on the rich history of both characters and laces it with fan-pleasing Easter eggs and reverence to the established mythology whilst creating some of its own – the most notable example being Kong’s wondrous journey into the home of his kind, the subterranean realm known as the Hollow Earth (culminating in a gratifying moment where the giant ape demonstrates the ‘King’ portion of his title).  Whilst the writing doesn’t seek to overly service the human characters, there’s enough interest to hold the viewers’ attention and keep them invested.

Millie Bobby Brown returns to the MonsterVerse in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Of the human cast, the returning Millie Bobby Brown (the Stranger Things actress reprising her role from Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is a standout as the sparky Maddison Russell, as is Iron Man Three’s Rebecca Hall who plays scientist Ilene Andrews, joined by Alexander Skarsgard (The Stand) as ridiculed author/scientist Nathan Lind.  Also returning is Kyle Chandler in the role of Maddison’s father, Mark Russell (it’s worth noting that Chandler also starred in Peter Jackson’s King Kong) albeit in a much smaller capacity and bafflingly, despite being billed in the opening credits, the excellent Lance Reddick makes an all-too brief appearance – leaving one to believe there may be extra scenes left on the cutting room floor.

Newcomer Kaylee Hottle provides a sweet and touching performance as Jia, a deaf Skull Island orphan, under the care of Hall’s Andrews.  Saved from devastation on Skull Island by Kong, Jia is a key presence as she utilises sign language to communicate with the great ape, providing some surprisingly heartfelt moments.  There’s some goofy humour courtesy of conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) and Maddison’s school chum Josh (Julian Dennison, of Netflix’s The Christmas Chronciles:  Part 2) to lighten the tone whilst Demian Bichir, Eiza Gonzalez and Shun Oguri make for a trio of suitably cheesy villains.  The cast are all fine and enjoyable in their parts, although there is a genuine lack of gravitas in the wake of Ken Watanabe’s absence…his character’s fate in King of the Monsters obviously precluding his involvement, sadly.

Again, it’s not the human characters that the audience is here for and Godzilla vs. Kong treats their true leads with awe and reverence.  Given ‘Gojira’ was last to have his own MonsterVerse film, the focus of Godzilla vs. Kong shifts a little more towards Kong who by all intents is the main protagonist and the only hope of halting Godzilla’s rampage.  Like the previous films, there is a definite sense of personality to both characters conveyed through the intricate CGI animation and their interactions with the human players – more specifically in the case of Kong here.  A little slow in its first act, Godzilla vs. Kong ramps up to a mostly even pace, carefully positioning Godzilla and Kong’s confrontations throughout the film.  The finale is perhaps a bit predictable, but the climactic Hong Kong battle facilitates an exciting finish as the two silver screen leviathans face a threat that might be greater than them both, as hinted at in the film’s marketing.

Godzilla vs. Kong obviously isn’t profound or meaningful (at least in terms of intellectual high-art cinema) nor does it intend to or need to be, it’ simply bold, awesome spectacle and the kind of entertainment that’s needed right now.

The bottom line:  Godzilla vs. Kong does what it should by bringing audiences an epic, effects-filled extravaganza that pits cinema’s (literally) biggest monsters against one another for an all-mighty clash that’s popcorn entertainment at its purest.

Godzilla vs. Kong is now in cinemas where available and is also viewable (for a limited period) via HBO Max in the U.S. and Premium Video on Demand internationally.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

The kaiju king returns as Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse continues…

Godzilla King of the Monsters

The mighty Titan himself: Godzilla (credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures).

 

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance

Directed by:  Michael Dougherty / written by:  Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields (story by Max Borenstein, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields) / 131 minutes

What’s it about?

Faced with the onslaught of gigantic creatures, awoken from their prehistoric slumber – the organisation known as Monarch find that there’s only one hope for humanity: the mighty Godzilla…

In review

Following Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, the 2014 Hollywood reboot of Japanese studio Toho’s most famous monster and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island (released in 2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters serves as the next chapter in Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ ‘MonsterVerse’ film series (which is set to culminate in Godzilla vs Kong next year).  Directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a visual feast that’s a little dumb and sometimes overly frenetic, but ultimately a whole lot of monster bashing fun.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters picks up five years after the events of Godzilla in which the titular apex predator – or ‘Titan’ – emerged victorious in his battle against the ‘MUTO’ creatures, saving humanity but at great personal cost for some with the city of San Francisco left decimated.  Since Godzilla’s disappearance the Monarch organisation has continued its research and investigation of the various ancient Titans – amongst them King Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon), Mothra (aptly, a giant moth) and Rodan (a sort of demonic Pteranodon) – discovered in their dormant states at various locations around the globe.  When the creatures are awakened by eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance), Monarch once again find their only hope in preventing annihilation may be Godzilla, the mighty king of all monsters.

Godzilla King of the Monsters (2)

Charles Dance and Millie Bobby Brown form part of the human cast (credit: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures).

Although characterisation is patchy, the dialogue occasionally ropey (and the persistent volley of wise-cracks from Bradley Whitford’s Monarch boffin aren’t entirely successful) and cookie-cutter gung-ho military types dumbing things down a tad, like Gareth Edwards’ film there’s a certain amount of human interest – the broken family unit (torn apart by tragic circumstances) is nothing new but it provides some emotional depth with Kyle Chandler’s estranged father Mark Russell (and former Monarch employee), whizz-kid daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) and mother Emma (and Monarch scientist), played by Vera Farmiga, placed firmly at the centre.  Some of the character motivations are questionable, even far-fetched and Charles Dance is woefully underutilised but luckily a returning Ken Watanabe (as Doctor Serizawa) is well served by the script and given a satisfying arc.  The use of bio-acoustics as a method of controlling the Titans is also a neat concept as is the notion that their conflict as a way of restoring the balance of nature that humanity has corrupted.

Make no mistake though, this is a Godzilla film and not Citizen Kane and King of the Monsters is at its best when dealing with its monster action and it fully delivers in its CGI kaiju smack-downs (the creatures thankfully remaining faithful to their original Toho designs), saturated with jaw-dropping effects rendered on a behemothic scale.  An overzealous employment of quick-cuts and shaky-cam in the visuals makes the spectacle a bit messy and nauseating at times but that aside, director Michel Dougherty (who previously helmed the fantasy horror flick Krampus and has co-writer credits on Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 and Superman Returns) maintains a steady grip on things.

In the end, King of the Monsters may lack some of the class and sophistication of 2014’s Godzilla (and there’s something to be said of that film’s divisive approach, the steady build-up facilitating a more rewarding pay-off) but with its spirited homage to the zany comic book B-movie sci-fi of Toho’s original films, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has value as a piece of popcorn entertainment and an enjoyable prelude to Godzilla vs Kong.

The bottom line:  Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a fun, undemanding slice of kaiju action that joyfully evokes the spirit of those kitsch Toho creature features.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is in cinemas now.

All images herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (spoiler free)

The iconic King of an equally iconic lost world is reborn in a franchise expanding blockbuster…

Starring:  Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Terry Notary

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly (story by John Gatins) / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

A team composed of scientists and military officers mount an expedition to a mysterious lost island in the South Pacific…

In review

Far from being a masterpiece, Kong: Skull Island isn’t in the same league as the classic original 1933 King Kong or Peter Jackson’s superb 2005 remake but is certainly superior to the creaky 1976 version, which starred Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.

Taking place as the Vietnam War is coming to an end, the narrative of Skull Island is served by a fairly simple, derivative, yet functional and entertaining script (from screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly) that’s hindered by weak characterisation and occasionally cheesy dialogue that underserves and underutilises a stellar cast.  Tom Hiddleston (Thor’s Loki) and Brie Larson (awarded an Oscar for her role in Room) are capable leads as former S.A.S. tracker James Conrad and ‘anti-war’ photographer Mason Weaver, respectively, with support from Samuel L. Jackson as tough-as-nails military man Lt. Colonel Packard, John Goodman as the expedition’s scientific leader Bill Randa, Corey Hawkins as fellow scientist Houston Brooks, Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Major Jack Chapman and John C. Reilly, on hand to provide doses of comic relief as Marlow, a marooned World War II pilot.  The cast is further filled out by a set of largely forgettable ancillary characters.

The pace of Skull Island is fairly tight which for the most part is fine, but the journey to the mythical Skull Island and the expedition’s first encounter with its ‘King’ all happens a little too quickly.  Some viewers might favour this, but it’s arguable that some extra time spent establishing the characters and a more steady build up to Kong’s reveal could have been of benefit.  That being said, the titular ape’s introduction is pretty spectacular and does not disappoint.

Where Skull Island ultimately succeeds then, is in its visuals and creature conflicts.  Whilst Skull Island itself lacks much of the mystery and creepiness of Peter Jackson’s version, it’s a suitably primal eco-system and Kong himself proves to be a magnificently realised creation, a towering behemoth (at 100ft tall this is the largest version of the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ ever to grace the screen) rendered in CGI with incredibly intricate detail, aided by the performance capture work of Terry Notary.  Kong aside, there’s a decent range of creatures of varied design from giant stick insects and arachnids to the ominously named ‘Skull Crawlers’ that become the main threat to the central characters and provide Kong with a formidable foe to grapple with, leading to a final act that’s quite exhilarating.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (currently tapped to helm the long gestating Metal Gear Solid feature film) handles the effects-driven action with relative ease and delivers some pleasing monster smack downs that will wow and thrill.  The Vietnam era setting is also in the film’s overall favour and affords Vogt-Roberts the opportunity to evoke vibes of Apocalypse Now, made all the more indelible by some wonderful photography from Batman v Superman cinematographer Larry Fong.  It also allows the otherwise disappointing script to inject a dash of well-placed satire.

Given Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ plans to develop a shared cinematic universe that will incorporate that other iconic screen monster – Godzilla – there are naturally some franchise connections within Skull Island, facilitated by the inclusion of the Monarch organisation that featured in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and fans are advised to stick around for a tantalising post-credits scene.

More of a blockbuster budgeted B-movie than a modern classic, Skull Island is undemanding fun that’s a little dumb yet occasionally rises to something greater via its visual effects and creature bashing action.

The bottom line:  Entertaining and often exciting, Kong: Skull Island is let down by thinly drawn characters and some weak scripting yet succeeds with its visual thrills.

Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas now.

Kong

The gigantic King of Skull Island roars onto the screen in Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ blockbuster ‘Kong: Skull Island’.

Film Review: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (spoiler free)

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards / Written by:  Chris Wietz & Tony Gilroy (story by John Knoll & Gary Whitta) / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescued from imprisonment, Jyn Erso is enlisted by the Rebel Alliance for a mission that will lead to the retrieval of the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the Empire’s new planet-killing weapon…

In review

Following the colossal success of The Force Awakens, Rogue One sees Disney/Lucasfilm unleash the first of their standalone ‘Star Wars Story’ anthology films to help sate the cravings of audiences whilst they await Episode VIII.  Such a project could easily be labelled as greedy and corporate minded, but luckily Rogue One proves its worth as a satisfying and engaging addition to the Star Wars universe.

Set prior to the opening events of 1977’s Star Wars – now retroactively known as Episode IV: A New HopeRogue One slots comfortably between the prequel trilogy and those much beloved and iconic original films without feeling contrived or unnecessary as it embellishes A New Hope by telling the story of the Rebel Alliance’s daring mission to retrieve the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the evil Empire’s new devastating, planet-killing weapon.  Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) is a strong and capable lead as convict-turned-Rebel ally Jyn Erso, daughter of Imperial Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who, together with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) assembles a rag-tag band of fighters including Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man who is strong with the force, his companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to battle against Ben Medelsohn’s Orson Krennic and the forces of the Galactic Empire.

Whilst Jones and Luna are clear standouts and best served by the screenplay’s characterisation, it’s reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO – voiced by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk – that often steals the show with a snarky and cantankerous attitude that provides much of the film’s dark humour and even some of its heart and soul.  Mads Mikkelsen (most recently providing the villainy in Marvel’s Doctor Strange) makes the most of his limited screen time but at least gets to make more of an impression than Forest Whitaker who is criminally underused as the gruff Rebel fighter Saw Gerrera, a face from the Erso’s past who would’ve warranted further development along with Jyn’s earlier years to further flesh out her ‘rebellious’ backstory.  Small quibbles aside, despite a slightly sluggish start Rogue One jumps to hyperspace once we get to the central plot, sending the viewer on an epic, action-packed ride that makes amends for any earlier narrative shortfalls and pacing issues.

This is most definitely still a Star Wars film yet one that is more grounded in the nitty gritty of warfare (with subtle shades of Saving Private Ryan and Platoon) and doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of ‘good vs evil’, the more mystical elements of the franchise mostly restricted to Imwe’s sporadic ramblings concerning the force.  It’s certainly all in the favour of Rogue One, mining some largely unexplored territory that enriches it all the more.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) stages some incredibly exciting and visually impressive set pieces that easily rival the action of The Force Awakens, much like what J.J. Abrams achieved there’s a real sense of heft and physicality to the film’s elaborate space battles as well as its ground focused combat as Rebel soldiers take on the Empire’s Stormtroopers and X-Wings swoop in to tackle Imperial walkers.

Rogue One not only looks great but also via its production design and costumes faithfully replicates the era of A New Hope as it was created by George Lucas and his team back in 1977.  Yes, it can still be taken as a standalone story but for fans of Star Wars, it’s actually Rogue One’s connectivity to the overall universe and saga – complemented by numerous easter eggs and lashings of fan service (some more pleasing than others, with the inclusion of Darth Vader handled particularly well) – that is perhaps one of its greatest appeals.

The bottom line:  The Star Wars franchise continues confidently with the highly enjoyable and epically realised Rogue One, providing plenty of excitement for fans and casual viewers alike.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.

Felicity Jones leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm's 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm’s ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’.

Film Review: ‘Godzilla’ 2014 (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards / Written by:  Max Borenstein (story by Dave Callaham) / 123 minutes

What’s it about?

Fifteen years after a devastating nuclear incident at a Japanese power plant, the world’s most famous monster is awakened…

In review

Arriving sixteen years after Hollywood’s last attempt at bringing Japan’s (arguably) most iconic creation to the global masses, 2014’s Godzilla thankfully avoids the many pitfalls of Roland Emmerich’s Jurassic Park cash-in.

This version is an exciting and often surprising interpretation that manages to stay firmly faithful (and respectful) to the history of the infamous monster.  I say that it often surprises, mainly for the fact that Gareth Edward’s film may have the elements of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster yet to simply label it as such would do it a disservice.  Indeed there is awesome spectacle and incredible special effects that bring the blockbuster moments to life (worthy of the extra cost of an IMAX ticket, although don’t expect any ground-breaking use of 3D), yet Godzilla is paced more slowly than you might have anticipated – teasing the reveal of cinema’s ‘King of the Monsters’ through glimpses of grainy historic footage and quick cuts to live news coverage.  This slow-burn approach feels right and appropriate for what is clearly intended as an origin story and proof that handling a Hollywood production in such a manner can be just as effective as your average – often breakneck paced – franchise behemoth.  Think more along the lines of Alien and Predator here than, say, Transformers.

As with Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film (and its many sequels), the story is largely told from a human perspective that provides a decent enough emotional core that’s not quite as satisfying as Super 8 (for example) but manages to hold interest between those monstrous large-scale set-pieces.  Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston amazes in the role of grieving father/disgraced scientist, demanding the audience’s attention with every line felt as well as heard.  Batman Begins and Inception star Ken Watanabe also delivers another believable character, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is less of a draw as Cranston’s son, yet via the film’s script delivers a refreshingly grounded take on the clichéd ‘military man’ (thankfully there’s no gung-ho Team America-esque characterisation here).  Elizabeth Olsen is given little to do beyond standard doting wife/devoted mother fare but between herself and Johnson (as I’ve said) there is enough character depth and emotional resonance to carry things forward.

It’s worth noting that much as the original film was born out of Japan’s nuclear fears (and more pertinently the scars of World War II), the new Godzilla wisely upholds those fears whilst tapping into the post-9/11 zeitgeist with dashes of ecological commentary as the film’s characters deal with tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns.

With Monsters, Gareth Edwards proved more than adept with balancing story, character and spectacle and repeats that on a much larger scale with Godzilla without becoming overwhelmed amongst the film’s massive and destructive set-pieces, keeping the visuals fluid and steady.

Of course I couldn’t end this review without commenting on Godzilla himself.  In another wise creative move that sets this film a world apart from the 1998 version is the creature design, which remains largely faithful to the original, iconic, rubber suit.  In fact you could easily argue that this is the best looking Godzilla design ever, the intricacies of every tiny detail allowed by the use of big budget CGI simply cannot be rivalled.

The bottom line:  With a healthy blend of grand visuals, some decent social commentary and emotional resonance, Godzilla is a monster of a hit that lays the path for a promising new iteration of the franchise.

Godzilla is in cinemas now.

What are your thoughts on Godzilla?  Leave your spoiler-free comments below!

Cinema's 'King of the Monsters' returns successfully in Warner Bros' 'Godzilla'.

Cinema’s ‘King of the Monsters’ returns successfully in Warner Bros’ ‘Godzilla’.