After the excellence of Godzilla Minus One, is Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire worth watching?

Monkeys are so hot right now in cinema, and Godzilla Minus One just won as Oscar for its brilliant kaiju effects. Eliza Janssen isn’t sure that Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire earns its place amongst the monster-movie rubble.

The “x” in the title of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is a tad misleading. Making a team-up between the world’s two most beloved kaiju sound like a fashion label collab, the name of the latest entry in Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse suggests that both beasties will set aside their historic beef in order to defeat a common enemy.

Their true opponent, however, is never mentioned in this passable monster movie’s runtime. He lies in wait on other, smaller cinema screens, after destroying theatres across the world at the end of 2023 and wrenching a Best Visual Effects Academy Award out of Hollywood a few weeks back. He’s the mighty Godzilla Minus One, the 33rd film produced by Godzilla’s home studio Toho.

That film had an estimated budget of $12 million: less than 10% of what WB’s Godzilla Vs. Kong cost back in 2021. Even though its critically-lauded effects still made space for city-flattening, heat-ray-scorching action excellence, the rest of the film was beefed up with serious questions of patriotism, the cost of human life, and hope in the face of nuclear annihilation. Did The New Empire ever stand a chance against such an elevated kaiju film, comparatively appearing feather-weight despite the added heft of King Kong and a Western star cast?

Firstly, Adam Wingard’s film skimps on the Godzilla of it all. Rebecca Hall’s returning scientist opens the film by explaining that Kong is safely in Hollow Earth as a big sad monkey loner, while Godzilla cracks the skulls of lesser Titans on the earth’s surface in between lengthy hibernation periods. As long as the two don’t have any reason to cross paths, everything will be aaaalright! Godzilla wakes from one such nap—adorably cradled like the sweet babby he is within Rome’s Colosseum—to charge up on nuclear power, readying himself against a mysterious new threat. (Godzilla has also noticeably slimmed down over the last few MonsterVerse films, losing his cute chunky thighs…I don’t wanna say “Ozempic”, but…)

These scenes of Gojira stomping a Crab-Titan into tartare sauce, and getting the best of arctic Titan Tiamat in a cool underwater battle with glowy bisexual lighting, are clear highlights in a story that otherwise has our human and simian heroes bouncing around Hollow Earth for far too long. Turns out that this mystical other realm looks an awful lot like Queensland’s Gold Coast jungles, with some astoundingly marginalised Indigenous Peoples hiding between the trees. Ever since his first groundbreaking appearance in 1933, King Kong has always been flanked by troubling depictions of violent, monkey-worshipping, gibberish-spouting “natives” of Skull Island: Peter Jackson employed them as dark-skinned, shadowy ghouls, and now Wingard tries a more sensitive approach by making the population entirely voiceless. Hmm.

Until the very final, climactic battle of Godzilla x Kong, the title characters separately gear up for battle with two nasty ancient forces: a bad monkey called the Skar King (unfortunately Wingard doesn’t stoop to add any Mighty Mighty Bosstones to the soundtrack when this guy shows up), and his captive weapon, ice-turtle-lizard-thing Shimo. A trailer for the next Planet of the Apes sequel played right before my screening, and so any of The New Empire’s attempts at monkey politicking felt impotent, irrelevant in the shadow of that more caringly constructed and filmed franchise.

The New Empire’s best scenes involve Kong, Godzilla, and other assorted kaiju buddies screeching and gesticulating at each other, but the film still doggedly tries to make us care about The Little People once again. This task was only successfully pulled off in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, and we’re not working with Bryan Cranston and a freshly-famous Millie Bobby Brown anymore. Instead, we have poor Bryan Tyree Henry as your archetypal screaming sidekick. He’s an incredibly charming and funny actor, here totally shown up by fun new Bri’ish character Trapper (Dan Stevens), and saddled with non-jokes about influencer culture.

The truth is that the American kaiju films could never aspire to the seriousness of a sleeper hit like Godzilla Minus One. The Oscar-winner has an even greater ratio of human-to-monster screentime, but completely pulls it off by sternly reckoning with the human toll of recovering from one nuclear holocaust—the historical truth of Hiroshima, making Minus One a wacky double feature with this year’s Best Picture winner—to battle a more fantastical, existential threat to our anthropomorphism.

Minus One’s protagonist Kōichi (Ryunosuka Kamaki) is a nervous wreck of a man, a disgrace to his military superiors and the survivors in his devastated town for failing to follow through on his kamikaze training. It’s heavy stuff, successfully sold to us by supporting performers like Shoplifters standout Sakura Ando, as Kōichi’s neighbour. Standing in the post-atomic rubble of their street, she sneers at our hero for daring to avoid suicide in the name of national duty: “look at what happened because of cowards like you! If you’d only done your job my children wouldn’t have died.”

Wingard, Warner Bros., and audiences turning up for a monster melee would not accept this from characters like Hall’s smartypants heroine, or Henry’s squealing comic relief character. A barely-there parenthood plot has Hall worrying that her deaf adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) will want to stay with her native Hollow Earth community. She doesn’t! Forgeddaboutit! Kong himself finds an adoptive Baby Kong, a merch-able, kickable little critter constructed in the vein of Baby Yoda. Stevens’ cowboy character races off in the film’s third act to fetch a sick robotic arm for Kong, as KISS’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” booms in the background.

There are no sacrifices; no moments of real fear, of malevolent power on a food-chain-shifting scale. No mentions of death tolls in the suburbs of Rome, Rio, and Cairo that our non-human heroes rumble through. Monarch might be pretty good at evacuating major cities by now, but c’mon brother…

2016’s Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One prove that it’s possible to engage an audience in the survival of those little pink beings below kaiju feet. But both, excellent films also tellingly centre their stories on government officials: even when these men fail and get inevitably smooshed, their goals of killing or subduing Godzilla are mired in a sense of work, responsibility, sometimes national pride. Not every movie about big-monkey-big-lizard-make-smash has to be so complex, but The New Empire proves that Hollywood is still cowering well below the skyscraper-sized intensity of these big characters, unable to harness their titanic power for good.