We can't have nice things, apparently: 2019's "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" felt like Hollywood's best attempt at capturing the action, excitement and thematic sensibilities of Japanese kaiju movies, but it underperformed at the box office and was under-loved by critics. That one-two punch led to some kind of course correction because now comes "Godzilla vs. Kong," a movie with scant interest in human beings, previous storylines or anything else that isn't a big ape hitting a big dinosaur.
Granted, if a monster movie wants to devote its resources to the monsters fighting, that's an acceptable and even admirable approach. As presented by director Adam Wingard ("The Guest," "Blair Witch"), however, the skirmishes here are fairly prosaic. Yes, we can see every blow and each body-slam -- and that's something that can't be said about many modern-day monster movies -- but the battles lack the grace and dynamism that have made both Kong and Godzilla such beloved icons of cinema. You'll get what you paid (or subscribed to HBO Max) for, but not much else.
It's been three years since any titans have emerged to walk the Earth, but Godzilla surfaces to attack the Pensacola manufacturing plant of APEX, a corporation whose name immediately lets you know they're up to no good. The media panics over this seemingly random outburst, but Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) suspects that something nefarious is going on at the company. So does Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a titans-obsessed podcaster who's been working at APEX in an attempt to uncover their secrets. (Those whom contemporary filmmakers would portray as obsessed kooks, they write as podcasters.)
Meanwhile, Kong is starting to get tetchy in his artificial simulacrum, despite the best efforts of scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a Skull Island refugee whose presence seems to keep Kong calm. For reasons of technobabble, APEX chief Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) hires academic Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) for an expedition by which Kong will lead them to the "Hollow Earth," a land at the planet's core from whence the titans originally emerged. And all of this will lead to the big, titular showdown amid the skyscrapers of Hong Kong.
Those skyscrapers are so bedecked with neon, incidentally, that it seems like the combatants are duking it out in the finale of "Xanadu." It's also a weirdly stakes-free fight since the only factor that will have any real impact on humanity (besides the people who had to evacuate their city) is the ringer that APEX brings to the fight, a callback to classic Godzilla that won't be spoiled here. Humanity, in general, isn't something that "Godzilla vs. Kong" seems all that interested in anyway; Madison was a key player in the previous film, but once she meets Bernie, she's mostly just along for the ride, as is her pal Josh, played by Julian Dennison ("Deadpool 2").
The visual effects are certainly impressive, with Kong and Godzilla both being given expressive faces and a sense of scale and majesty. (This might be one of the first movies where Godzilla's teeth are part of his weaponry.) The performers do what they can with the screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein; Brian Tyree Henry gets saddled with some groan-worthy one-liners, and Bechir clearly attended the same "How to Play a Corporate Slimeball" courses that Pedro Pascal took pre-"Wonder Woman 1984."
If you're here for Godzilla, get ready for a decided lack of fan service: Kong gets the bulk of the screen time (and the backstory), and the Godzilla musical theme and legendary roar are both noticeably absent here. "Godzilla vs. Kong" does provide a few third-act surprises linked to his past, but overall, the top billing masks his treatment as a secondary protagonist.
Yes, obviously, no one goes to these movies for the deep human characters or for plot machinations or even for the metaphors about the environment and industrialization. Here's the thing, though -- they come in handy to fill in the gaps between the monster battles, and you miss them when they're not there. And since even those battles are somewhat perfunctory, what are we even doing here?
"Godzilla vs. Kong" opens in theaters and on HBO Max March 31.