/ 8 April 2024

Spectacle without substance

"godzilla X Kong: The New Empire" World Premiere Red Carpet
Caught in a celluloid jam: Adam Wingard, director of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

I’ve never been a big fan of either the Godzilla or Kong franchises, so I didn’t expect much going into Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire beyond the usual thrills you get from a typical summer blockbuster. 

But I held out hope that it might offer something more than just a battle royale between a collection of skyscraper-sized beasts.

Seeing it in IMAX 3D meant at least the visuals would make it a memorable experience but, ultimately, The New Empire delivers on spectacle while disappointing on substance. 

You might think it’s folly to expect anything from a film like this beyond the excitement of seeing behemoths rampaging through streets and brawling but that isn’t the only reason these films have fascinated audiences for so long. The best of them have used the mayhem caused by giant primates and lizards as Trojan horses to tell stories about universal human values.

This has been exemplified so well in the recent past — more later — but not by The New Empire which, for anyone who’s keeping track, is the 38th in film the Godzilla franchise and the 13th in the King Kong franchise, with the first King Kong being released back in 1933. 

This latest film is part of the “Monsterverse”, an interconnected series of Godzilla and Kong  movies that started in 2014, essentially applying the Marvel formula to combine two popular franchises into an endless stream of films in a shared universe. 

The New Empire is clearly meant for people who have at least watched 2021’s Godzilla x Kong and viewers will especially appreciate it if they’ve seen other entries in the Monsterverse, which began with 2014’s Godzilla

There are multiple references to the previous films that will confuse viewers who are entering the story without any context but should delight fans steeped in the lore. 

While the film’s impressive visuals are its stand-out attraction, somewhere around the halfway mark I grew tired of its overreliance on the type of computer-generated imagery carnage that has become the hallmark of Michael Bay’s much reviled (or much-loved, depending on where you stand) Transformers franchise. 

The New Empire picks up a few years after Godzilla x Kong. In the former, Godzilla and Kong go head-to-head in an epic battle which sees the King of the Apes coming out victorious. At the start of this new film, we find Kong has since established a territory for himself in Hollow Earth — a prehistoric landscape that exists somewhere deep under the surface of Earth, inhabited by a variety of oversized creatures including dinosaurs and apes. 

Godzilla has been left on the surface and when he’s not sleeping inside the literal Colosseum in Rome, he’s doing battle with other monsters. 

The story starts when an observation post owned by the multinational organisation Monarch picks up an unidentified signal in Hollow Earth. 

Monarch was created in secret by the US government to study the monsters that roam the Earth, such as Kong and Godzilla, who they collectively call “Titans”, meaning you could say Godzilla is a kind of monster-for-hire contractor for the US government, although the payment terms are unclear.

At the same time, 10-year-old Jia, played by Kaylee Hottle, starts to see disturbing visions related to Kong. Jia is the last member of the Iwi people, an ancient tribe that was native to Kong’s home of Skull Island and, despite being deaf, is the only person able to communicate with Kong through sign language. 

She’s also the adopted daughter of Kong expert Dr Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). 

It soon becomes clear that Jia’s visions and the unidentified signal picked up by Monarch are related. But the real trouble starts when Godzilla also picks up the signal and starts moving in the direction of Kong’s territory, leaving the usual trail of destruction and panic in his wake. 

Everybody’s worst fear is that Godzilla and Kong are poised for another epic showdown, but they gradually realise that there’s another threat to worry about.

The biggest thing working against this movie is the fact that a much better example of how to make a film of this genre came out just last year — Godzilla Minus One. Set in Japan during the waning weeks of World War II, Minus One worked so well because it wasn’t simply about carnage but made a strong point about the toll of war and the dangers of harnessing nuclear power without ethical considerations.

The crucial thing the makers of Minus One understood was that, for the audience to care about the rampaging monsters, they have to care about the human beings whose lives are affected by the mayhem they make. 

In The New Empire, the human cost of the destructive battles in Rio de Janeiro and the Pyramids of Giza is completely overlooked. In Minus One, the focus is almost entirely on the negative consequences for people, and it gives the action a visceral quality where the stakes feel higher than in your typical blockbuster. 

In Minus One the characters are well developed and the relationships between them emotionally forceful while, in The New Empire, the characters mainly function as resources for exposition. There’s an attempt to tell an affecting story about adoptive parent-child relationships and the struggles of developing a sense of belonging when you’ve lost your home, but it’s handled so poorly it doesn’t have much impact.

There are a few hints that Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire could have been a better film but it ends up being little more than an excuse for Godzilla and Kong to team up for an epic showdown against another pair of monsters. 

Overall, the film is fine if you’re looking for monsters rampaging through city streets and brawling but it doesn’t offer much beyond that.