Thursday, March 28, 2024


by Rob DiCristino
Anyone know how we’re pronouncing this title?

With all due respect to the creatives involved, I’ll admit I had a hard time recalling 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong when I received the invitation to cover its follow-up. One of those COVID blockbusters that was delayed more than a year before premiering day-and-date on Max, Adam Wingard’s continuation of the series that began with 2014’s Godzilla nonetheless earned nearly half a billion dollars at the box office and briefly set a record — if you believe the corporate bookkeeping used to calculate these sorts of things — for most views of a Max release. Wingard had long-since established his indie horror bonafides with The Guest, You’re Next, and 2016’s Blair Witch reboot, but Godzilla vs. Kong gave him the opportunity to prove his mettle on a larger scale. And while it’s a touch too plotty and carries a few superfluous human characters, Godzilla vs. Kong is nonetheless a sharp and entertaining blockbuster that pays appropriate homage to the series’ pulpy origins without alienating mainstream audiences who aren’t schooled in the larger universe of titans and monsters.
Now under considerably less pressure to prove himself as a four-quadrant filmmaker, Wingard brings even more joy and confidence to Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Co-writing with Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett, and Jeremy Slater, he returns us to Hollow Earth, the subterranean world uncovered in the last adventure. Supervised by Monarch Industries and their chief scientist Dr. Ilene Andrews (a pixie-shorn Rebecca Hall), King Kong rules underground while Godzilla reigns on the surface. The people of the world may have adapted to the presence of Titans, but whistleblower/conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) believes that more secrets remain. He’s proven correct when a mysterious signal begins emanating from deep inside Hollow Earth, a pattern of energy that Jia (Kaylee Hottle) — a native of Skull Island’s extinct Iwi civilization — has seen in her dreams. Together with Titan veterinarian Trapper (Dan Stevens), the team discovers an ancient evil so powerful that it’ll take both of Earth’s guardian sovereigns to take down.

Dispensing with most of the circuitous worldbuilding and clunky human drama that occasionally hobbled its predecessor, The New Empire leans head-first into the science fiction of it all, quickly introducing the new rules, stakes, and king-sized characters we’ll be following for the duration. Kong leads the adventure, descending into caverns and chasms in pursuit of a mini-Kong who knows how to find more like them. Meanwhile, Godzilla battles radioactive enemies on the surface, storing up the nuclear energy he’ll need for the showdown ahead. Wingard is clearly growing into blockbuster storytelling, navigating between these plotlines with ease and — most importantly — trusting the audience to remember the bits that matter and to let Ilene and Bernie explain away those that don’t (There’s a whole gravity well thing in the third act that is better left — and enjoyed — uninterrogated). While it won’t win any awards for character depth or narrative complexity, The New Empire tells exactly the story it means to tell in exactly the way it means to tell it.
More impressively, Wingard cannily demonstrates the difference between giving an audience what they need and — I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Frozen Empire — what they think they want. Rather than littering his frame with callbacks and references to Godzilla and King Kong films of the past — though eagle-eyed devotees will know exactly where to find them — Wingard never slows things down to fawn or gloat, instead focusing his energy on telling a story that primarily seeks to expand and enrich those worlds. In other words, he functionalizes the audience’s relationships rather than fetishizing them. We like Kong. We like Godzilla. We know their strengths and their weaknesses, and we like cheering them on from a safe distance. More than anything else, though, and whether or not we’re even aware of it, we’re eager to see them do things we’ve never seen them do before. The New Empire dives into that sandbox with aplomb, grabbing cinema’s most storied action figures and slamming them together at the highest of speeds.
So while it never approaches the grandiosity of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake and lacks the stellar craftsmanship of last year’s critically-acclaimed Godzilla Minus One, The New Empire is a crowd-pleasing action/adventurer that should serve as a model for future IP efforts as we continue our collective cultural detour away from whatever inane shared multiverse crossover fuckfest jamboree the folks at Marvel had lined up for us over the next ten years. Adam Wingard is proving that truly creative voices can avoid getting ground into dust by franchise machinery if they remain assertive and focus their attention on one self-contained project at a time. Franchise films can, believe it or not, work in harmony with those voices and may actually — brace yourselves for this — be better trusted in the capable hands of those with genuine affection for the stories being told. None but the most ardent monsterverse fans may remember The New Empire by the end of the year, but it’s easy to see how each and every one of us would benefit from its potential success.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire hits theaters on Friday, March 29th.

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