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Goofy and imaginative Godzilla x Kong a mixed bag of Monsterverse mayhem

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Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.


There are sequences in the latest Monsterverse adventure Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire during which I felt like returning director Adam Wingard (Godzilla vs. Kong) was let loose to do whatever the heck he and his cadre of writers (including frequent collaborator Simon Barrett) wanted, free of any studio shackles. There are long stretches in this installment when heroic ape Kong wanders around the wilds of Hollow Earth fending off a variety of creatures (or trapping for a midafternoon snack) while also searching for other giant apes similar to himself.

These bits are sublime. Kong uses his intellect to set inventive traps to sucker predators into becoming his prey, nurses a nasty toothache, and still makes time to check in on his favorite human, the last surviving member of Skull Island's Iwi community, Jia (Kaylee Hottle). Later on, when he goes to investigate the subterranean regions of Hollow Earth, the Titan finally runs across an entire civilization of emaciated and angry apes who have been trapped near the Earth's molten core for unimaginable eons.

This all builds to an extended sequence in which Kong befriends a young primate by showing him kindness instead of cruelty. It also leads him into the middle of a conflict he cannot hope to end on his own and that also unwittingly puts the fate of the planet in serious jeopardy. Kong faces off against the vindictive and conniving Skar King, an elder simian who has subjugated Hollow Earth's surviving apes to his will and who wants to destroy humanity.

All of these moments are aces. While the overabundance of CGI during these sequences is undeniably noticeable, Wingard still manages to make things feel real even if, as a viewer, I always knew everything up on the screen was made on a computer and not on a sound stage. The visual flow is kinetically impressive, while the sound design is equally excellent. These scenes are also strikingly edited by Monsterverse veteran Josh Schaeffer, and there is a wonderful clarity to the set pieces that in lesser hands could have easily become nothing more than 20-minute bursts of colorfully nonsensical chaos.

Granted, as great as all of this may be, there's no way the producers would let Wingard make a two-hour faux nature documentary chronicling massive Titans in their natural habitats both above and below the surface of the earth. A human element must be introduced, at the very least to explain what the heck is going on and why anyone watching should care. While this facet of a Godzilla-centered motion picture has typically been anything more than serviceably silly over the past 70 years (you can count all of the exceptions on one hand), for fans — and I am a big one — it's equally not that much of a problem either.

There are exceptions, of course, and no matter which era of Godzilla you want to look at (Showa, Heisei, Millennium), you're going to find a few notable misfires. So far, as goofy as they've gotten, the Monsterverse has managed to avoid this trap, but dang does The New Empire test that theory. Every new plot element comes with a gigantic helping of expository word vomit, and this becomes increasingly annoying as the plot steamrolls toward its forgone pugilistic conclusion.

Brian Tyree Henry, returning as Titan conspiracy theory podcaster Bernie Hayes, is called upon to deliver the majority of it. While his comic timing and dramatic commitment to the material is unsurprisingly laudable (he did just receive a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his superlative performance in 2022's Causeway, after all), it still feels like the only reason his character is around is to explain what the heck is going on, and that's unfortunate.

It also does not help that Rebecca Hall, back as Monarch's Kong expert and Jia's adoptive mother Ilene Andrews, has practically nothing to do other than to look wide-eyed at all the mystifying peculiarities Hollow Earth has to offer or somberly sulk at the possibility she may lose her beloved daughter to this strange new world. The actor makes the most of what she has to work with, but as monumentally talented as Hall is, the lemonade she squeezes from these particular lemons still leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The one human character who does make a continually positive impression is Trapper, a "dentist" for Titans, whose loopy enthusiasm for his work (even in the face of almost certain death) is gloriously infectious. Portrayed with euphoric self-confidence by Dan Stevens, this is one of the best performances in the entire Monsterverse. Trapper is a continuous jolt of anarchic energy, and if Wingard ever decided to make an entire film following this guy around in his day-to-day kaiju veterinary responsibilities, I'd be first in line to watch it.

Events climax with the requisite giant-creature slugfest, this time in Rio de Janeiro. While the Skar King shouldn't be much of a match for the combined might of Godzilla and Kong, there's a secret reason the cantankerous alpha Titans must once again join forces to bring down a common enemy, and I'm not about to spoil what that is. I'm also not going to go into why Jia is an integral player in the carnage, but anyone familiar with Showa- or Heisei-era Godzilla films will be able to quickly figure out why a potentially telepathic young girl with the ability to communicate with monsters may be important.

Much like with Godzilla vs. Kong, Wingard shows he's up to the challenge of staging these battles. The crashes are substantive, the booms make an impression, and the whizbang amazes. But I do miss the sense of overwhelming awe that was present in all three of the first Monsterverse entries (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), and at a certain point, watching buildings get smashed by these all-powerful creatures does get tiresome.

But only slightly. Thanks to a handful of creatively unexpected flourishes coupled with Wingard's confident handling of the material, I still found plenty to enjoy. While Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire did on occasion test my patience, the overall ride does remain a fun one, and because of that, I'm still willing to remain seated on the Monsterverse's bandwagon — for now.