Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire review: a very flimsy monster mash

Godzilla and Kong race into battle in a still from Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire review: a very flimsy monster mash

“The underwhelming effects give you new appreciation for what the Oscar-winning 2023 movie Godzilla Minus One did at a fraction of the cost.”

Pros

  • There’s a big ape and a big lizard
  • Godzilla’s pink spikes look cool

Cons

  • The human stuff is a drag
  • The effects are underwhelming
  • It’s all so weightless

There’s no weight to anything in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Certainly no figurative weight — this tag-team adventure for the most iconic giant monsters of movieland has all the gravitas of a toy commercial. But no physical weight either. Though its marquee attractions loom like mountains, we never feel their footsteps in our bones, never get the tingling sensation that something impossibly heavy stands before us. At one point, the big beasts crash through the Egyptian pyramids — those ancient wonders of architectural ingenuity — and we might as well be watching a sandcastle blow away. It’s all so flimsy.

This expensive eyesore, this gimcrack nothing of a blockbuster, has the misfortune of arriving in the immediate aftermath of the newly minted Oscar winner Godzilla Minus One. Now there was a kaiju movie; exciting and soulful, it brought its 70-year-old marquee attraction back to his roots as a terrifying allegory for postwar Japan. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, the latest in the big guy’s parallel Hollywood franchise, is more like the frivolous Toho monster smackdowns of the 1970s, when Godzilla had become a jokey, kid-friendly defender of humanity. At least those movies had some actual weight to them — as in, the kind carried by real stuntmen in real suits stomping on real models. Here, everything on-screen is a digital mirage, a cluster of 0s and 1s lumbering across a glittering backdrop of the same.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire | Official Trailer 2

The previous movie in the series, surprise pandemic hit Godzilla vs. Kong, was no great shakes either. But it had the advantage of leaning on its Vegas fight-promoter hype — the promise of two colossal headliners whaling on each other for the first time in half a century. The New Empire lacks even that hook. Nor does it much capitalize on the promise of these frenemies begrudgingly joining forces. Though that little x in the title is supposedly silent, it might as well be a slash given the little screen time the reptile and ape share.

Kong holds a spear in a still from Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire
Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

Most of The New Empire unfolds across Hollow Earth, aka the Vernian lost world at the center of our own, which was discovered by the scientists of the last movie. With its gaudy, multicolored foliage and flocks of pterodactyl, the place suggests what Pandora might look like if James Cameron spent only a long weekend rendering it. While director Gareth Edwards shot the first entry in this reboot series mostly on location, augmenting real landscapes with effects afterwards, The New Empire has the flat, anti-immersive scenery of a movie made almost entirely on a soundstage draped in green screen.

Picking up where Godzilla vs. Kong left off, the plot is nonsense even by the standards of movies aimed at 8-year-olds of all ages. It hinges on Kong, long believed to be the last of his kind, stumbling upon a tribe of fellow massive apes in an uncharted stretch of Hollow Earth. These distant relatives include an aggressively cute toddler of Mighty Joe Young proportions, as well as the movie’s villain, a crimson-colored anti-Kong who wields a chain-like melee weapon and plots to mount an attack on the world above because … well, does an evil giant ape really need motive? Still, one might wish returning director Adam Wingard (The Guest) spared even a moment on Kong’s desire for belonging. Long scenes of chest-beating territorial conflict evoke Planet of the Apes, but without the, well, humanity Andy Serkis has lent his primate characters.

This is, as it might be clear, more of a King Kong movie than a Godzilla movie. That focal point makes sense: The ape is the more expressive character — and by dint of his shared-ancestor lineage, easier to project upon. But where does that leave Toho’s finest? Mostly running errands on the periphery. Edwards used the G-man sparingly, too — it remains a point of contention for fans — but he made each appearance count. Wingard can’t seem to find much for Godzilla to do before the inevitable fisticuffs climax; he curls up for a quick nap in the Colosseum and gets his spikes done, emerging with spiffy hot-pink radioactive highlights. Who knew a 400-foot dinosaur could look bored?

Godzilla glows pink and screams in a still from Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire
Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

As for the humans, they’re a motley assortment of new and returning spectators. The once more sprawling ensemble has been whittled down to an earnest scientist (Rebecca Hall), a jaunty veterinarian (Dan Stevens), a neurotic comic-relief podcaster (Causeway‘s Brian Tyree Henry), and the last daughter of Skull Island (Kaylee Hottle), whose orphanhood mirrors Kong’s. Can you really blame Millie Bobby Brown, among others, for jumping ship? There’s little for an actor to do in these movies but spout pseudoscience or quips. While Godzilla Minus One proved it was possible to care about the people in a giant-monster movie, The New Empire can’t even be bothered to make it seem like the performers are occupying the same universe as their CGI co-stars. Never once do they convincingly interact with the monsters they won’t shut up about.

A man and a woman stand in front of a building on Godzilla x King Kong: The New Empire.
Warner Bros.

Not that the kaiju stuff is any better. The underwhelming effects give you new appreciation for what Godzilla Minus One did at a fraction of the cost. And the spectacle succumbs to what we might now call the Quantumania problem, shrinking away the fun of the material by removing any sense of scale. What’s the point of making a movie about creatures of skyscraper stature if you’re not going to emphasize their size through contrast? Setting the action primarily within a jungle landscape, away from throngs of puny humans, misplaces the lizard-brain appeal of a Godzilla movie. Even when the action shifts to a metropolitan arena, Wingard deflatingly opts for medium shots that fail to convey just how damn large these warring titans are meant to be.

Edwards knew better. For all his 2014 Godzilla divisively denied the audience instant gratification, it was a triumph of scale; by shooting the carnage from the ground and framing it through a terrified civilian perspective, he made the monsters look unfathomably massive — and in their computergenerated way, almost real, too. The sequels, supposedly course correcting away from the restraint of that franchise-launching hit, have delivered bigger doses of prehistoric combat, the dumb fun we were said to have been deprived. But they’ve also tacked steadily away from anything resembling grandeur. The New Empire is a new low in that respect. It’s big in a very small way.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire opens in theaters everywhere Friday, March 29. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

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