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film review

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Directed by Adam Wingard

Written by Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater

Starring Rebecca Hall, Kaylee Hottle, Brian Tyree Henry, Dan Stevens

Classification PG; 115 minutes

Opens in theatres March 29

There was a time when a movie like Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire could have gotten by just on its atomic fumes and a pulverizing CGI aesthetic. That was just three years ago, actually, when Godzilla vs. Kong could count on an audience satisfied with the lowest common denominator in mind-numbing entertainment, like a well-timed right hook from one cinematic giant to another. We lived in a world where we didn’t expect much more from a movie about a title match between high-rise-sized monsters generated by computer.

But then a Godzilla movie won an Oscar! Toho, the Japanese company that created Godzilla 70 years ago, released Godzilla Minus One last fall, expanding on the same postwar anxiety and so much of the monster’s mystique from the 1954 original.

Toho’s granular-looking period piece pushed the humanity of the storytelling forward and squeezed Godzilla far enough into the periphery that every sight of him was genuinely breathtaking. For that the company won the Oscar for visual effects. And it pulled that off on a US$15-million budget, which is a tenth of what Hollywood is pouring into its cheap-looking installments in the MonsterVerse (Warner and Legendary‘s attempts at making a Marvel-like franchise out of Godzilla and Kong). Toho proved that sometimes tinier is better, even when it comes to Godzilla.

And so, director Adam Wingard’s Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, a slow and visually hideous crawl to an underwhelming brawl, is arriving, weeks after the Oscar win, like a whimper. (It can at least count on the audience too lazy to read subtitles to have skipped Godzilla Minus One, and perhaps still appreciate the low bar this movie barely clears.)

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Godzilla and Kong face off in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

Wingard’s sequel to Godzilla vs. Kong even feels built with a sense of self-defeat, an acknowledgment that the overstuffed material that’s put on screen is like aggressive make-work. The creators are throwing a bunch of evolutionary lore and stakes rendered on Houdini software, which no one involved (or in the audience) feels particularly invested in, at a scheduled theatrical release date. They’re leaning on actors to speak of kaiju and their historic beefs with a sense of awe that – five movies into the MonsterVerse – has never felt earned.

There’s a whole section in which the characters in this movie discover an ancient Indigenous tribe that invented a complex irrigation system and found ways to manipulate gravity from the centre of the Earth, which, in the movie’s world, could explain how the pyramids were built. But all that comes across not with genuine curiosity or wonder – or the awe that poor actor Rebecca Hall tries valiantly to communicate with her eyes – but as busy bits of business to set up Kong smash.

Even the title, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, sounds like words awkwardly lumped together as if designed only to satisfy best practices in search engine optimization. Like, are we supposed to say the “x?”

The movie doesn’t feel like a total failure from the start. We catch up with King Kong in his habitat in the Earth’s core, which, for those who haven’t been keeping up, is a hidden world with even more hidden crevices.

There, pterodactyls still fly, giant plants can be cannibals, and the wolves have slithery tongues and warthog teeth. The prologue has Kong annihilating a wolf pack and taking a carcass home for dinner. He showers their guts from his fur under a waterfall before chowing down, only to discover a toothache. These tiny human-like routines, as when Godzilla, after taking down a giant snow crab in Rome, curls up for a nap in the Coliseum, are the best the movie has to offer. The slightly organic quality of monsters having downtime breaks up all the franchise’s imposing artificiality.

The calm doesn’t last. Kong, Godzilla and Jia, the young mute Indigenous child played by Kaylee Hottle, are rattled by a threat they can all sense. Jia, the child once protected by Kong on Skull Island, is now discovering telepathic powers. She’s become an antenna for scattered images and electric patterns, which signal danger.

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Rebecca Hall, left, as Dr. Ilene Andrews and Brian Tyree Henry in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.dan mcfadden/Warner Bros. Pictures

At the same time, Godzilla begins attacking and consuming atomic power sources, charging up for the duel he knows is a few dozen pages down in the screenplay. And Kong resurfaces from the Earth’s core so that the scientists can give him some dental care, because (well, that toothache is a nag, but also) he too is readying for what’s next, a Planet of the Apes-style uprising from the Earth’s core.

For all the buildup toward a slugfest between Godzilla, Kong (outfitted with a new mecha-arm), some surprise allies and an army raised from the Earth’s core, this one is egregiously dull. It’s just a bunch of cartoonish limbs flailing, with bursts of fireballs and beams, lacking any of the graceful or exhilarating movements that a little human choreography could have helped with.

A whole section during the climactic bout takes place in the Earth’s core, without gravity, which doubles as a metaphor for the movie as a whole. It’s weightless.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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