As the climax to Legendary Pictures' "MonsterVerse" franchise, Godzilla vs Kong raises the question: was anybody in the entire world waiting for the climax to the MonsterVerse? How many people other than the rabid consumers of media news blogs, their brains addled by too much internet, know that the "MonsterVerse", under that name, even exists? The 2014 Godzilla film pissed off as many people as liked it, if not more (I am, to be very clear, one of the people who liked it), 2017's Kong: Skull Island was celebrated with a kind of vague "what fun, dumb nonsense" level of applause that has not, as far as I can tell, been the result of anybody really remembering it four years later, and 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters made a mortifyingly small amount of money while earning the ire of literally every single fan of giant monster movies I know well enough to discuss the matter with. The last of these, in particular, would seem to have positioned Godzilla vs Kong in the very worst possible position as the immediate follow-up to an underperforming and largely unliked lump of popcorn movie goo.

That being said, it's already clear enough that the film's position as the first honest-to-God tentpole popcorn blockbuster-type movie to come out in the world on the downward slope of the 2020 pandemic* is going to lead to it getting some pretty fine box office returns and audience goodwill from around the globe. But the mere fact that it's going to run where King of the Monsters crawled around with broken kneecaps doesn't really remove the question: does this feel like a culmination of a series that seems to be growing grander and more involved with each step, the way that The Avengers felt in 2012? Or does it just feel like a thing that's happening? The fact that Godzilla vs Kong has the shortest running time of all four MonsterVerse movies - and by God, let me state in no uncertain terms that I am extremely glad of this fact, which is probably the single biggest reason that I would declare GvK an obvious improvement over KotM - already points to how this certainly doesn't feel any more epic than any of them, or more monumental.

In other words: I am very much on team "just a thing that's happening". Even by the standards of franchise tentpole filmmaking as it evolved over the second decade of the 21st Century, Godzilla vs Kong feels awfully like an extruded product: the "team of bureaucrats" approach to virtually every single aspect of the filmmaking other than the title fight itself radiates off the film like a persistently unpleasant but not exactly noxious smell. And since it is, in every possible sense, the only thing anybody cares about, let me tell you about that title fight for a little bit, even if technically it comes far enough into the film that it probably counts as a "spoiler". But we're not children, we know that in a film called Godzilla vs Kong the "vs" isn't because they're on opposite sides in debate club. There are three large-scale fight sequences in the film (and two much smaller ones), and the second is by far the best: the first gets a little too tangled up in its elaborate CGI water physics and pyro effects, and the fighting itself feels like an afterthought; the third feels inevitably anticlimactic. While I will never, ever be someone for whom CGI kaiju are more appealing than men lumbering around in foam rubber suits, I can be honest and admit that the CGI used to bring Godzilla and Kong to life this time around is stellar, and the very clear, human-sized personalities that we see on the fighters in their close-ups and just in the different fighting styles they bring to bear on each other are triumphs of character animation (setting aside the question of whether a franchise that began with the "towering mountain of godlike presence" approach in Godzilla actually benefits from giving its kaiju human personalities). The shifting shot scales in the fight make it very easy to follow the course of the action, as the virtual camera ducks around buildings that the fighters are pummeling their way through; indeed, this is almost shockingly legible for a modern CGI fight - all three of them are, really. But the second one gets the added benefit of taking place at night in a city pulsing with gorgeously gaudy neon lighting, so in addition to everything else, Godzilla and Kong keep getting limned with hot purple and green and teal and all, adding a nice coating of candy-colored pixie dust (not least of the reasons the third fight feels like an anticlimax is that it takes place in full, flat sunlight and a lot of brown).

Now, the studio is more than welcome to use "shockingly legible" as a pullquote, but even as I type all of that out, it feels like I'm writing the film's performance review more than engaging with it as a transporting piece of popcorn movie magic, and that's exactly right - whatever else it is, Godzilla vs Kong isn't magical. It's just there, and the just there-ness is instantly clear from taking a gander from the story and screenplay, credited to five different men which absolutely means that there were several more (none of them being director Adam Wingard, who does not obviously do anything to give the film any sort of perspective or personality; as someone who has not previously liked Wingard's work, I'm fine with that). It would be, I think, very hard to over-state how diabolically bad this screenplay is. Certainly the worst of all four movie, sharing as it does their common sin, unbearably boring human characters who get far too much "personal drama" to gum up the smooth working of a giant monster movie, and adding to that a real doozy of an awful structure. And, just for flavoring, enough impenetrable technobabbly bullshit to make an episode of Star Trek: Voyager blush.

Basically, the film is on one hand, a 40-years-later follow-up to Skull Island, and on the other hand, a 5-years-later sequel to King of the Monsters, and while these overlap - they have in common the same villain, untrustworthy industrialist Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) - they don't actually intersect, not even when they're all on the literal same sets at the literal same time in the final scenes. So just by moving forward in time, Godzilla vs Kong feels like a smash-up of two unrelated things, with all the jagged edges poking out. If there's any silver lining to this, it's that the Skull Island sequel is much better, and it's also more prominent (I was, in fact, extremely surprised, even shocked, by how transparently this film cares more about Kong than Godzilla; this causes it some real problems as it goes along and needs us to be equally invested in both monsters): Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a biologist and the world's foremost Kong specialist, is worried that Kong is growing too massive to remain safe and alone on Skull Island, especially with Godzilla running free in the world, so she and crackpot scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) team up to transport Kong to the hollow center of the Earth, which Lind has theorised and which was sort of randomly gestured at in dialogue of the last two films. It becomes a full-on Thing in Godzilla vs Kong, and not to the film's benefit, though when we eventually get into the primordial lost world at the center of the planet, it does turn out to be a pretty cool (and physically nonsensical, even by the standards of bad movie science) world of warped gravity and impressive old-school pulp fantasy design. Ilene, for the record, has adopted a child, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a native of Skull Island if I follow the film's undernourished exposition right, and Jia turns out to have a psychic link to Kong. And if it's me, two of the things I'm least likely to want to recover from classic Japanese monster movies are people with random psychic links to kaiju, and little kids on the "but he is a good monster and friend to children!" model, but it's not me, and at least Jia is deaf & mute, so we don't get a bunch of inane prattling.

Over in the unrelated Godzilla movie, we get Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) - you remember Madison, right? That great character we all loved in King of the Monsters? It blows my fucking mind how breezily Godzilla vs Kong thinks it can incorporate elements from that movie, as if a solitary living soul gave any shits about the human drama we got there. Anyway, Madison is a huge fan of the podcast of a ludicrous paranoiac named Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, who is so much better than the material he's been given that it makes my eyes water), who doesn't go under his own name, but otherwise leaves such an unambiguous trail of breadcrumbs to his identity that it's baffling he hasn't been killed yet. Because Bernie is an employee of the same evil cybernetics company sponsoring Ilene and Nathan's journey to the center of the earth, and he is growing very concerned that there's some kind of secret project afoot. Whatever it is, it seems to have gotten Godzilla pissed off enough to go on a rampage for the first time in five years, and this is where Madison comes in; she knows as much about Godzilla as anybody, and she too is convinced there's something untoward, so she and her whiny buddy Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison) and Bernie all go sneaking about trying to figure out what Simmons is up to. Thankfully, we don't get too much of these three, though what we get includes some of the most jaw-droppingly painful writing in the entire film: in one lumpy, crammed-together line of dialogue, we learn that Bernie has a dead wife and we get the reveal of a symbolically-heavy flask of whisky that's clearly going to pay off later and the quirky character detail that he keeps his whisky in a gun holster, the better to freak out teen girls.

That's an especially ungainly example, but there's precious little about any of the writing in Godzilla vs Kong that isn't painfully manipulating humans into position or puking out inexplicably detailed exposition, and there's nothing that rises above the level of pure mechanics. One can say, and many have, that since we're just here for the monkey fighting the lizard, we don't need an elegant story, and I take that point, but Jesus Christ, if that's really to be the defense of the movie, it would benefit it to have a whole hell of a lot less of this aggravating narrative clutter robotically ping-ponging between its two storylines. And if we're to take this as a "turn off your brain" movie, then there really shouldn't be so much cumbersome fake science to keep track of as Ilene and Nathan breathlessly spout meaningless factoids at each other.

The clunky writing is matched by the choppy, piecemeal editing, which is surprisingly bad at doing something as simple as keeping conversational rhythm going, or even, in non-action settings, of establishing space (there is, at one point, a cut from the exterior of a building at night to different angle of the exterior of the exact same building in daylight, and it's certainly not to establish the passage of time. Or maybe it's the other direction. It's scandalously bad, either way). And the acting is a smooth, uniform paste, with Henry making enough of an annoying nuisance of himself to emerge as the only meaningfully distinct personality in the movie. Obviously, everybody involved really did just want to get us to the prize fight as quickly as possible, and cared about nothing else, but in that case, get us to the prize fight as quickly as possible, don't bog us down with the garbled adventures of two different and unrelated populations of humans. As it stands, the only thing of even the slightest enthusiasm I can say about Godzilla vs Kong is that it's definitely better than King of the Monsters, but that's hardly an achievement. Hell, it isn't even better than the original Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla from 1962, and there's no sense in which that was some unapproachable, unmatchable classic.
Godzilla vs Kong

*I'm sorry, dear Monster Hunter - you were first in my heart, but the world wasn't ready for you.