Godzilla vs. Kong (GvK) is a pulled punch. A total whiff.

It was announced a half-decade ago as the culmination of Legendary Pictures’ foray into Toho’s Godzilla intellectual properties, which launched in 2014 with the decent, gorgeous Godzilla. That was followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017, introducing an action-hero King Kong for the sake of this matchup. Two years ago, we got Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a truly great Godzilla movie even if the general audience didn’t appreciate it. That one is stuffed to the brim with weird science, over-the-top biblical visuals and rip-roaring monster action.

GvK was supposed to release in 2020, but, well, y’know. So here it is, the grand finale, a movie that feels about as disjointed and unenjoyable as Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League except this is the final product. No do-overs this time!

The plot follows two separate strands of wildly dissonant quality. The Kong side is about a group of new characters helping Kong return to his ancestral home in the Hollow Earth, a concept introduced in the previous movies. They’re doing so partially out of love for Kong and partially because a nefarious businessman has manipulated them into traveling to the Hollow Earth so Kong can find a power source hidden there. The latter is a plot-lift of Toho’s exemplary King Kong Escapes 1967). In fact, the Kong plot feels like a classic Toho Kong plot and features multiple references to those silly movies. It’s good.

Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is the lead scientist and he’s joined by Kong experts Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle).The three of them form a little family unit that mostly sits in a wondercar and comments on Kong’s adventures from a safe distance. Kong encounters plenty of creepy crawlies at the center of the Earth, a visually stunning environment that feels like it could be the setting for a fantastic sci-fi Kong movie. Frankly, this cast, premise and plot would have been an interesting sequel to Kong: Skull Island. Instead, it’s weighed down by a terrible sequel to King of the Monsters.

Intercut with their adventure is an entirely separate story following King of the Monsters alum Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) as she teams up with a conspiracy podcaster named Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) to uncover the secrets behind Apex, a company that Godzilla keeps attacking for mysterious reasons. Apex is building something mechanical, and it’s up to these two and tag-along friend Josh (Julian Dennison) to stop them. Conceptually, this plot could have the same energy as the Kong plot; most of the movies featuring Apex’s monster are pretty silly. Unfortunately, it is failed by an entirely disengaged execution that seems catered to audiences who can’t generally connect with the story aspect of Godzilla movies.

One of the most common complaints about kaiju movies is that they focus too much on the human characters without enough monster action. “Melodrama,” or whatever. This can be true, but most of the time the complaint is over-baked, revealing a misunderstanding about how these stories work. Fact is, someone within the movie has to look at the monster and feel terrified or awed by it. This can be done in any number of ways. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla introduced a bare-bones human cast that mostly looked scared and what-not. Michael Dougherty’s King of the Monsters went a more sci-fi route and introduced a bunch of earnest super-scientists and a kid – an ensemble well within the traditions of the genre. The important thing is that the characters in the story feel genuine. They should speak to the audience’s awe of the monster. Their fates should feel important because they’re the characters that change in the presence of walking, roaring gods.

I don’t think it’s possible to trust anyone who disliked Godzilla: King of the Monsters for its human plot and thinks GvK is an improvement.

The Kong half of GvK, when it works, has the right earnest tone. It suffers from the same awful editing as the rest of the movie, but the emotional core is there even if it’s only thanks to Rebecca Hall being incapable of a bad performance. The Godzilla half is full of smug, self-aware characters performing smug, self-aware plot movement just to set up the final boss. (You didn’t really think it would come down to Godzilla and Kong, did you?) Even the villain — a delicious Demián Bichir — is far too disengaged from the story being told. It’s dangerously close to Jurassic World levels of detached, ironic remove. It very much feels like the writers were so afraid of audiences asking why they should care about any of the human characters that they wrote a script about characters making fun of the very idea of emotionally engaging with one of these absurd, silly movies. Just abysmal work.

As the movie swings between the silly family sci-fi caper with Kong and the terribla Godzilla plotline, it starts to feel like an exhausting episode of a studio panicking instead of following its artistic North Star. They set up the “Alpha Titan” pecking order stuff in the previous movie and even invoke it here, but everything about the movie screams a lack of confidence in the story they were telling. The 2014 Godzilla movie set up a grounded world where Titans exist; King of the Monsters cartoonishly escalated that concept in a way that stayed true to the first movie’s allegorical aims and visual stylings. GvK simply abandons all of that — the wonder, the awe, the terror. Godzilla is a god in the previous two movies; here, he’s just cashing a check.

Whereas King of the Monsters felt like a perfect Americanization / updating of the classic Godzilla films, Godzilla v Kong feels like it wants to be anything but associated with those movies, up to and including the active avoidance of Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla themes. Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) composes the worst score of his career, a generic electronic mess that barely speaks to the actions onscreen much less the participants whose music is as culturally important as their anatomical designs. Of all the inexplicable choices made by director Adam Wingard and company, ditching Godzilla’s theme music is the one that hurts the most. This goes beyond a fanboy complaint. The score is so utterly unremarkable that it brings the big action moments down, too. It isn’t even a good placeholder.

The biggest middle-finger to the previous two movies — and the franchise as a whole — is the introduction of Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), implied to be the son of Dr. Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) from the previous two Legendary Godzilla films. The original Serizawa was named after the tragic hero of the original 1954 film, who sacrificed his life to stop both Godzilla and the humans whose violence had caused him. In the Legendary series, Serizawa is a believer in Godzilla and the Titans. In one of King of the Monsters’ most visually arresting sequences, Dr. Serizawa sacrifices himself to revive Godzilla, an inversion of his classic character arc but one that felt natural to that movie’s story.

By contrast, Ren Serizawa is a punchline. He’s the only Japanese character with speaking lines in the entire film. But that’s a generous description of a glorified extra who becomes the sacrificial lamb to further a heinously stupid plot contrivance. There is meaning to the name Serizawa in this franchise, and there’s even more meaning in not reducing the only Japanese character into a joke. It’s a bizarre and thoughtless decision in a bizarre, thoughtless movie.

Are the fights good, though? Surely those redeem the movie? No, not really. The lack of decent musical accompaniment and the simple fact that Legendary’s Godzilla isn’t anthropomorphic make for a series of encounters that feel more like an alligator attacking a monkey than anything else. They’re cut even more erratically than the previous films’ fights, and the scale of Godzilla and Kong’s destruction is essentially unremarked upon by anyone in the film. Their fight in Hong Kong has nothing compared to the God vs. Satan imagery of Godzilla’s finale tussle with Ghidorah in King of the Monsters. That imagery was hilariously over the top, but I’ll take genuine, excited hyperbole over bland CGI tussles any day of the week. For what it’s worth, the final battle does feature some fun references to the original King Kong vs. Godzilla and other Showa-era classics, but those mostly underscore how lacking the movie itself feels.

Let’s not even get into the abjectly awful design of the final boss.

I wrote about the Godzilla franchise a few years ago in my series Are You There Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan series and find a lot to love in many of these movies. Some of them are great. More of them are bad. In the worst case, a few are totally forgettable. This is one of those. A shame coming off such a high with Legendary’s other “Monsterverse” movies, but a bad Godzilla movie isn’t the end of the world. I suppose it may be the end of this iteration of the character, though, and perhaps that’s for the best.