That’s Enough of the MonsterVerse

There is rarely a good time for Godzilla to show up, but the MonsterVerse version of him could not have picked a worse moment to rampage again. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, the fifth entry in Legendary Pictures’s slate of movies featuring lumbering kaiju and dubious continuity, arrives just weeks after Japan’s Godzilla Minus One concluded its impressive box-office run in the States. That film, made using a paltry-for-a-blockbuster budget of $15 million, took home an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and proved that audiences had a taste for a fresh spin on the Godzilla story. Maybe creatures like him could do more than merely stomp around and roar a bunch.

Too bad the MonsterVerse movies prefer the stomping and roaring to actual storytelling. The films, after 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island established the franchise’s stars, have morphed into exercises in CGI monster-mashing. The truth is that pure spectacle has kept me on board, even as the sequels have become awfully hard to defend as actual movies. I’ve been genuinely impressed by the expressive creature design and layered sound work; the monsters’ screams often make me feel like my bones are rattling. These films may be empty—there’s no message or meaning to think about—but they can be strangely stimulating.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, however, is the MonsterVerse at its weakest: Its spectacle is even duller than its story, which is already nonsensical. The film promises that the two titular monsters will team up—though by using x instead of an ampersand, it hints at an enemies-to-lovers beastly romance. Alas, the plot does not go there, nor do Godzilla and Kong spend much time on-screen together at all. They are meant to unite to defeat a Kong-size ape named the “Skar King.” But for most of the movie, Godzilla is on the surface of Earth, gathering more energy because he senses a threat, while Kong remains in Hollow Earth, the mysterious realm at the planet’s core in which he investigates the origins of this new simian foe.

The film becomes only more frustrating to watch as the creatures get sidetracked facing off against lesser adversaries. Many of these set pieces pale in comparison to previous ones in the franchise. When Godzilla faces off against a swarm of drones, the brawl doesn’t feel suspenseful, the way the similarly staged helicopter scene in Kong: Skull Island did. When Kong fights the Skar King’s henchmen (hench-apes?), he lacks the feral energy he had tearing apart Hollow Earth’s winged predators in Godzilla vs. Kong. The film also repeatedly avoids portraying encounters it spends ample time teasing. In one scene, Godzilla heads to the Arctic Ocean and threatens a sea serpent with bioluminescent fins that emit a neon-pink glow (hell yeah!). But just as the two start snapping at each other, the movie cuts away to the ocean surface, where the serpent’s severed body emerges. The battle’s over before it’s begun, leaving the audience with none of the dizzying fun that comes from watching giant monsters clash. These movies, at their best, evoke the juvenile energy of chucking action figures at each other, making them fight. New Empire plays like an annoyingly strict babysitter, cleaning up the toys before anything wild happens.

Five movies in, the franchise has clearly begun to run out of ideas for new antagonists and combat arenas. Hollow Earth, for all its iridescent landscapes, has become less breathtaking the more it’s been seen. One character calls it “a nightmare monster hellscape,” but the animated nature of the place only makes its denizens seem more fake. When Godzilla and Kong tore through Hong Kong in Godzilla vs. Kong, they were somewhat scary, the scale of the buildings emphasizing their gargantuan size. Hollow Earth serves as the setting for the bulk of New Empire, including its climax, but inside it, both monsters appear to be average beasts. No amount of wide-eyed looks on the part of actors too talented for these films—including Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, and a lively Dan Stevens as a titan veterinarian—makes what happens exciting.

Still, the film does offer a glimmer of something different from the silliness it’s been peddling. Its dialogue-free opening sequence features an afternoon in the life of Kong and rather delightfully captures why the character has been a movie star for so long: His personality is as dramatic and compelling as his size. Threatened by a pack of predators, Kong scares them off by ripping one of them apart over his head and seems disgusted when he gets drenched in the corpse’s green blood. He goes for a rinse under a waterfall, then sits in his cave, looking out with a solemn, slightly indignant expression as he tends to a toothache. Later, on Earth’s surface, Godzilla, too, takes a break. After destroying much of Rome, he curls up for a nap in the middle of the Colosseum, ignoring the helicopters spying on his every move. The MonsterVerse has turned them into vessels for delivering head-spinning visual effects and ear-splitting sound, but New Empire suggests these two do have rich interior lives—we just don’t really get to see them. In 2014, the humans insisted on having titans fight. Perhaps it’s time to let them rest.

The Atlantic