The King of the Monsters is standing taller than ever since he became a surprise Oscar-winner earlier this month, but filmdom’s most famous kaiju isn’t about to let his newfound prestige get the better of him. Anyone worried that Godzilla might pull an Adam McKay and make a sudden pivot towards self-importance will be delighted to find that “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” eagerly strips both of its namesakes of whatever seriousness they might have accrued over the years, even if that means stripping them of their souls along with it.

Don’t be confused by the multiplication suggested by the silent “x” in its title: This goofy-ass, clumsily assembled Saturday morning cartoon of a movie might as well be called “Godzilla Minus Everything,” if only because the more accurate “Godzilla Minus Everything Plus Dan Stevens in a Hawaiian Shirt” wouldn’t fit on a marquee.

Then again, there’s something all too right about the ridiculousness of the title that director Adam Wingard and his trio of credited screenwriters — Simon Barrett, Terry Rossio, and Jeremy Slater — ultimately landed upon for the latest installment of Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse, a movie so explicitly designed for overstimulated 10-year-olds that it makes 2021’s dreadful “Godzilla vs. Kong” feel like a Merchant Ivory period drama by comparison (“Mechagodzilla x Maurice”).

Sure, the math of it all doesn’t really add up (Godzilla and Kong don’t multiply so much as they join forces against a common enemy), and sure, “Godzilla x Kong” sounds less like the name of a film than it does the name of an unimaginably foul perfume, but maybe that’s what makes it such a fitting sobriquet for the first sequel to “Godzilla” (2014) that doesn’t stink quite as badly as it could have. 

As for the second part, well, what’s more fun than a movie subtitle with a clear explanation? That’s right: A subtitle with two contradictory ones. “The New Empire” could refer to the previously explored nether regions of Hollow Earth, where Kong — suffering from such an intense degree of existential despair that his loneliness manifests as a dental crisis à la Don Draper — discovers that he may not be the last of his kind after all. On the other hand, it could also refer to the surface of our planet, which the film’s eventual villain hopes to make into his own dominion now that Monarch has opened a two-way portal between Earth’s different levels. 

It doesn’t really matter in the end, of course, because nothing really matters from the start; from an opening shot that finds Hollow Earth flooded with natural sunlight (despite the fact that this subterranean realm is entirely cocooned inside the Earth’s crust), “G x K” is determined to make your brain stall out as soon as humanly possible, and it accomplishes that goal so fast that it’s hard to tell whether the hideous speed-ramping effect in Kong’s first first scene is a deliberate creative decision or if it’s just a symptom of your synapses collapsing in real-time. Possibly both.

Anyway, Kong is very sad. Godzilla, meanwhile, is big mad for reasons that the monster watchdogs at Monarch are struggling to understand. He’s still begrudgingly hunting titans across the globe in order to keep nature in balance or whatever, but he’s doing so more aggressively than before, while also absorbing energy from his fellow kaiju — and from nuclear power plants — as if he’s charging up for an imminent battle that only he can predict. (The full dimensions of that battle don’t come into view until the end of the film, but that’s for the best, as the script has a lot more fun teasing the hidden secrets of Hollow Earth than it does uncovering them.) 

Godzilla is a bit less communicative than Kong, who’s got a full Koko the Gorilla/Jane Goodall thing going on with a native Skull Islander named Jia (15-year-old Kaylee Hottle, reprising her role from “Godzilla vs. Kong”), but he’s clearly got humanity’s best interests in mind, and that’s reason enough for Wingard to overlook the fact that Godzilla kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people every time he goes for a walk. Extras run in terror as the radioactive 400-foot lizard stomps through downtown Rome, obliterating the city’s ancient history with each step, but we don’t see even a single person get crushed underfoot; someone at my screening even let out an involuntary “awww” when Godzilla decides to curl up for a nap inside the Colosseum. 

Not even the silliest of the Toho movies dared to make the King of Monsters seem like such a softy, but Wingard is just laying the groundwork for the cuddliest kaiju saga in the MonsterVerse canon. Hollow Earth might be a “nightmare monster hellscape” full of people-eating tree trunks and zombified wildebeests, but it’s also home to a big-eyed baby Kong named Suko (a muggy and profoundly annoying little runt who’s only redeemed by the cathartic moment in which Kong beats another monster over the head with him), and an ice-breathing dinosaur who looks like he got lost on his way to “The Land Before Time.” The film’s main antagonist has a certain menace about him, I suppose, but that adorable ice dinosaur is his greatest weapon, and it’s hard to be all that scared of a villain who spends most of his time kicking monkeys into the lava mine(?) where he forces them to work for unknown reasons. 

In any event, it’s a good thing that “G x K” has some human characters to help shape its story, even if there’s something to be said for how comfortably Wingard embraces the fact that he’s making a half-animated movie, complete with long, dialogue-free stretches of CGI beasties grunting at each other. It would be a much better thing if those human characters were at all interesting, but WB’s MonsterVerse has always struggled with the role that people should play in it, and the decision to cast wildly overqualified actors for such meager roles continues to underline why this entire franchise is such a spectacle of unrealized potential. 

GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE, Suko, 2024. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire’©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

No disrespect to Rebecca Hall getting that studio money, but seeing one of the most fearless screen actors of her generation introduced above a chyron identifying her character as “Head of Kong Research” would be a lot easier to swallow if Dr. Ilene Andrews was given even a single interesting thing to say. Her new pixie cut has more personality than she does, and it’s a major testament to Hall’s skill and attention to detail that she’s able to forge a heartrending bond between Ilene and Jia, her adopted Iwi daughter who only feels at home in Hollow Earth (and surely relates to Kong’s displacement in spite of the life Ilene has created for her on the surface), even though their characters don’t share a meaningful scene together until the movie’s final moments. 

The discrepancy between talent and material is even more pronounced when it comes to Brian Tyree Henry’s performance as conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes, who barters his way into a spot on the human expedition down to Hollow Earth. Henry can go toe-to-toe with anyone on talent alone, but the panicked logorrhea he’s forced to play here is so much worse — and more grating — than what his fellow cast members have to suffer through, and made all the more inexcusable by the fact that Bernie’s comic relief is completely redundant now that this series has Dan Stevens’ Trapper on its team. 

Playing a monster-loving kaiju vet who the actor has rightly described as a cross between Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and Patrick Swayze in “Road House,” Stevens nails the fun-loving swagger of a guy who literally dives into this movie and begins performing dental surgery on a skyscraper-sized ape while zipline-dancing to the sweet grooves of Loverboy over the soundtrack. Trapper is the physical embodiment of the goofy-cool tone Wingard is going for, and it’s clear the director and his writers have focused their creative energies on him at the expense of everyone else (Ilene doesn’t even get to enjoy a contact high from sharing a new adventure with her old ex-boyfriend, as “G x K” memory holes any hint of the characters’ romantic connection as soon as it’s first discussed). 

Trapper’s yacht rock vibe also provides this movie the only excuse it needs to indulge in some light and well-handled ’80s fetishization, which helps “G x K” harken back to the nostalgic color grade that Wingard previously brought to “The Guest” (another tongue-in-cheek throwback starring Dan Stevens). Tom Holkenborg and Antonio Di Iorio’s synth-driven score paves the way for an adventure flecked with Kiss music cues, airships with neon pink vapor trails, and so many shimmering quartz crystals that Hollow Earth starts to resemble the banner photo of a culty Facebook wellness group.

Even at its most prismatic, however, the film’s computer-generated wonderland is a dull backdrop for all of the monster fights this movie stages against it, and while the grand finale on the beaches of Rio is so poorly blocked that it pisses away whatever good will you might have left for this movie, that climactic return to the building-crumbling mayhem this series is known for is enough to remind you just how much “G x K” has missed it. 

And that’s ultimately why, in spite of Stevens’ delightful screen presence and the genial silliness of the movie around him, “G x K” proves too empty to acquit: It doesn’t take its fun seriously enough for any of its nonsense to stick. All would be forgiven — and possibly even celebrated — if Wingard had delivered on the full promise of a film about massive CGI monsters punching each other in IMAX, but the titan showdowns are a slog more often than not, albeit in a variety of different ways. Godzilla’s underwater fight against the Arctic kaiju Tiamat is visually incoherent, a later skirmish atop the Pyramids is even more video gamey than the last act of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and the brawls in Hollow Earth are fatally denied the scale they need in order to give them weight. 

The majesty that Gareth Edwards brought to the Battle for San Francisco in 2014’s “Godzilla” should have been the template for how to make these movies feel worthy of the spectacle they’re straining to convey, but the people who’ve inherited this franchise are so determined to make it “fun” that they’ve forgotten how to earn that feeling. Ten-year-olds might flip for it, but that seems like too low a bar to set for a kaiju who stands several hundred feet high, and just won an Oscar for his work in Japan.

At the risk of encouraging Godzilla to make his own “Vice,” maybe a little gravitas is just what he needs to get his groove back in this part of the world as well. 

Grade: C

Warner Bros. will release “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” in theaters on Friday, March 29.

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