Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire review: almost too much of a good thing

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Between Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla vs. Kong, it felt like Legendary Pictures had worked out a solid plan to launch its interconnected Monsterverse of films into the stratosphere. By going big on spectacle and bringing so many of Toho’s classic kaiju together, the Monsterverse films captured the spirit of the Shōwa era. They stayed “true” to the franchise in a way that made them sit comfortably alongside Japanese films like Godzilla Minus One. But that same approach is also why director Adam Wingard’s Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire feature often feels like it’s hopped up on way too much of a good thing.

You don’t exactly need to have seen the past Monsterverse movies or the Apple TV Plus spinoff series to follow The New Empire. But it definitely makes it easier to understand the story of how Godzilla and King Kong once again find themselves locked in a battle that will determine humanity’s fate. 

After years of Godzilla being generally seen as a terrifying threat, The New Empire opens at a point when the radioactive amphibian has become something of an unruly hero to people across the globe. In one of The New Empire’s first set pieces, the big man causes just as much destruction as his enemy as he chomps, punches, and tail whips the other kaiju to death while untold numbers of people die in the crossfire. But with the memory of King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mechagodzilla still relatively fresh in people’s minds, they’re willing to accept that Godzilla belongs on the planet’s surface to keep other Titans down in the Hollow Earth — the mysterious realm where giant apes like Kong originated.

Despite The New Empire involving human characters like anthropological linguist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) who were directly involved in the events of previous Monsterverse features, almost all of the new film’s human protagonists move through this story with an awkward greenness that doesn’t seem right for people you’re meant to believe as survivors of multiple Titan encounters. 

It was during those encounters that Monarch researchers first discovered Titans could consume radioactive energy as well discharge it and that the monsters would instinctively battle for dominance when sensing one another. But when Godzilla starts seeking out nuclear reactors to feed on, there’s widespread confusion within Monarch as to why — in part because Kong, the only known potential threat to the lizard’s supremacy, has been living in the Earth’s center.

By making many of its human characters seem strangely unfamiliar with the Titan-tracking business, The New Empire gives itself an easy but clunky way to get Monsterverse newcomers caught up on how the monsters operate. Rather than asking the sorts of questions you might expect from someone who has spent significant time studying kaiju, Ilene’s more of an audience surrogate who speaks almost exclusively in exposition dumps. Something has Godzilla worried, and Monarch knows it should be concerned, but it isn’t until Ilene’s adoptive daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) begins having alarming visions that anyone up top stops to consider whether Kong might have something to do with the situation.

The humans in Monsterverse films have never been particularly compelling, but in The New Empire, their thinness is reflective of the fact that they’re really the supporting characters. Godzilla and Kong are the stars here. And because the franchise has already spent so much time focusing on the former, The New Empire makes the smart choice to dig deeper into the latter’s mysterious connections to Jia and the Hollow Earth. It’s always been interesting to imagine what a Monsterverse film entirely focused on the Titans might look like, and The New Kingdom experiments with the idea as it turns its attention to Kong’s new life in the Hollow Earth.

The New Empire feels almost like a larger-than-life nature documentary as it uses snapshots of Kong’s new normal to wordlessly convey the loneliness Kong feels as — he thinks — the last of his kind. Though Kong doesn’t speak, his eyes and facial expressions are animated with an uncanny humanness that makes his emotions readily apparent. The Hollow Earth’s a wondrous, terrifying place, but you can see how forlorn Kong feels encountering groups of other wild Titan species. You can see how reluctant but tempted he is to travel up to the surface, where he knows Jia and Godzilla are both waiting to welcome him. But Kong’s emotions become even more complex and impressively animated when he meets Suko, a young Titan hailing from a new group of ape monsters.

Despite there being no dialogue, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire really hits its stride as Suko and Kong embark on a journey through the Hollow Earth’s otherworldly jungle to what seems like Kong’s true home. Because the Titans are so expressive, you can track the evolution of their relationship and feel how abruptly it shifts when the pair encounter the whip-wielding king of the new ape monsters. But as interesting as the visual presentation of Kong’s story is, The New Empire pivots back to its human characters to explain what’s happening so frequently that it feels like the studio doesn’t trust audiences to be able to follow along.

The film is just more compelling when it focuses on the monsters in a series of increasingly over-the-top set pieces that feel almost like pro wrestling matches. Kong and Skar King’s clashes in the Hollow Earth are brutal and cleverly shot in ways that almost make you forget how humongous the Titans are as you see them flying through the air, wielding their primal weapons. Kong’s expressiveness, in particular, helps The New Empire’s action feel emotionally driven because you can see him thinking things through.

But right around when Kong’s new power glove shows up, the movie starts to become so ridiculous that it almost seems like Warner Bros. decided it was time for the Monsterverse to go for broke. Though it’s definitely wild to see Kong hitching a ride on Godzilla’s back as they charge into battle together as allies, that same emotiveness that makes the great ape feel so human makes the reptile seem almost cartoonish. That energy feels like a very intentional nod to some of the goofier Toho films like Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Hedorah. But it’s also a shift that the Monsterverse wasn’t on track for and serves as a distraction from how awkwardly the film comes together.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (pronounced “Godzilla Kong” like a first and last name) features enough crowd-pleasing fights to satisfy theatergoers. But those hoping for the film to establish a way for the franchise to keep evolving may be disappointed because it’s difficult to imagine where Legendary takes the Titans from here. The studio probably doesn’t want this to be the Monsterverse’s last chapter. But going out with a big, absurd, pink-hued bang might not be the worst thing for Godzilla and his ax-wielding friend.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire also stars Dan Stevens, Alex Ferns, Fala Chen, and Rachel House. The film hits theaters on March 29th.

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