‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire’ is here to please your lizard brain

(2.5 stars)

Evolution doesn’t always stomp forward in a straight line. It’s been less than a month since the Japanese action-drama “Godzilla Minus One” made Godzilla respectable and won the nuclear-powered lizard the first Oscar of his 70-year career. Now comes the Hollywood blockbuster “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” to remind the giant beast he has no business hobnobbing with little gold men. He and the big ape exist to smash stuff, and boy do they ever in this messy, sporadically stunning monster brawler. No fewer than two — two! — rival nasties get ripped in half before the title card hits the screen. In Italy, Godzilla turns a squid-faced crab into cioppino. Meanwhile, deep in the Earth’s core, King Kong howls as sabretooth-tiger innards dribble down his chin. Merchant Ivory, this isn’t — and not a single person in my theater wished otherwise.

The 2021 entry “Godzilla vs. Kong” was quite good, a pure-intentioned, muscular spectacle. This sequel is clunkier, which is odd as returning director Adam Wingard and screenwriters Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater have trimmed away the vestigial characters who had been tagging along since 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” They’ve slashed the Homo sapiens leads from 10 actors to four: scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a conspiracy-chasing podcaster named Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), and a madcap biologist named Trapper (Dan Stevens). Even in such small company, the two men contribute little more than fleeting comic relief. Henry does a snort-worthy sendup of the terminally online (though it’s beyond me why the guy prattles on about aliens when there are enough bizarre creatures on Earth) while Stevens, clad in a bright Hawaiian shirt, plays a poetic-adventurer-meets-Ace Ventura type, which would have been even funnier if someone didn’t call him Ace Ventura to his face.

Their attention — and ours — is on the monsters, specifically the challenge of figuring out what’s driving Kong and Godzilla to roam around beating up other titans. Part of the film’s charm is that the humans are often flummoxed; they tend to know where the creatures are headed, but rarely why or what they can do to help, a relatable frustration for anyone who has ever dragged their pet to the vet and gotten a diagnosis of stress. Kong might be lonely, or he might have a toothache, or he might be responding to electrical anomalies in the air; Godzilla sometimes goes to Rome just to use the Colosseum as a dog bed. In Wingard’s hands, neither beast carries the burden of being a metaphor for humanity’s sins. They’re simply animals. And it’s great fun to see them act like animals, to rampage without shame, as when Kong snatches a baby critter and hurls it like a ninja star.

The movie alternates between prankish laughs and visual poetry. You could freeze-frame half the images for a prog-rock album cover. The camera goes spinning in loops, pastel crystals jut out everywhere, a mountain range is dusted pink and purple just because. All sorts of things zip around the screen, including a flock of prehistoric birds with black-and-yellow zebra-striped feathers that look like they’re cosplaying as Eddie Van Halen. There’s a rollicking sequence in which the gang plummets into the center of the Earth and the editing gets so choppy you can imagine gravity struggling to yoink the film reel from its sprockets. Better still, in one marvelous, wordless interlude, an ape tells a joke to a cavern full of other apes. We have no idea what his hoots mean, yet we understand everything that’s going on.

The script trips itself up trying to draw thematic ties between Kong and Jia, as orphaned primates who fear they’ll never find a home. The parallel is too leaden for a movie this featherweight, and where the last film hinged on a simple question — are Kong and Godzilla willing to concede that they are co-alphas? — now everyone has to go and save the world. Confoundingly, about halfway through the movie, the characters discover a prophecy that lays out everything that’s going to happen in the last act. Why scuttle the suspense (and that surprise cameo)?

Wingard’s not a sentimentalist, and “Godzilla x Kong” stumbles whenever he tries to slap phony emotions onto the film to make it more like a generic crowd-pleaser. He’s a showman, a popcorn guy with excellent aesthetics. Let James Cameron give his “Avatar” organisms biological plausibility. Wingard just wants to tint one monster hot pink, another one gold and another the opalescent shimmer of a 12-year-old’s first bottle of nail polish.

The movie’s biggest hurdle is that Wingard used up his best ideas in the last one, especially that phenomenal sequence where Godzilla and Kong duked it out in a neon-trimmed Hong Kong. In lieu of repeating itself, many of this film’s big battles take place in natural settings, like one in Egypt where all the colors are earth tones. A more earnest film couldn’t get away with razing the Pyramids of Giza, let along several city blocks of Rio de Janeiro. Someone would have to pipe up and say: But what about human culture? What about human civilians? Those quibbles might have merit in a moralistic superhero flick or (yikes!) an Oscar contender. But when it comes to the high jinks of this 36-story lizard, just throw up your hands and cheer.

PG-13. At area theaters. Critter-on-critter violence and action. 114 minutes.

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