Here is the most charitable reading I can muster for Godzilla vs. Kong: The human characters in this movie make incredibly dumb choices, say only the most banal dialogue, and spew painfully unfunny comic relief because, from the very first Godzilla in 1954, this franchise has always been about its jaundiced view of humanity and its inflated sense of self-importance. Godzilla and the rest of his monster brethren represent the planet’s revenge against its wasteful caretakers. At their best, the Godzilla movies chronicle man’s folly; their misplaced belief in science and the way that science pales in comparison to nature’s true power.

Sadly, though, this is not Godzilla at his best. As an entertainment, Godzilla vs. Kong is as hollow as the Earth upon which its set. Here, the human characters’ irrational decisions do not feel like part of a cohesive statement about our species’ self-absorption, but rather the byproduct of a superficial screenplay that cares only about the excuses needed to get Godzilla and King Kong into several extended (and undeniably impressive) CGI scuffles. The actors become little more than bystanders in their fights — except the fights only take up maybe 30 minutes in a two-hour film, meaning we spend a lot of time following around glorified spectators.

Their ranks include Alexander Skarsgard as Dr. Lind, a disgraced scientist whose book about Hollow Earth theory attracts the attention of a billionaire industrialist named Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) wants him to lead an expedition beneath the planet’s surface to find a power source capable of protecting the Earth from future Godzilla attacks. The only creature alive who might know where this power source is turns out to be King Kong (playing himself), who’s a former resident of Hollow Earth. He now lives inside a giant simulation of his former home on Skull Island that’s monitored by another scientist, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).

Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, teenager Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), who’s the daughter of two more scientists and a survivor of the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, becomes convinced that there’s something fishy about Godzilla’s most recent attack. She decides to investigate with a buddy named Josh (Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison). Along with a muckraking podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry), they uncover a massive conspiracy that could determine the fate of the world. (It helps that the most advanced laboratory on the planet has absolutely terrible security.)

One does not require Shakespearean drama from Godzilla vs. Kong; if you want that, go read Shakespeare. Still, a little information about who these characters are and what they want would be nice. Unfortunately, the script — credited to five different writers — barely provides any. Instead, it constantly alludes to characters and backstories that are never explained. (Who is Dr. Lind’s dead brother? Why did Dr. Lind leave Monarch? Are we just supposed to know that Shun Oguri’s character is the son of Ken Watanabe’s scientist from the previous two Godzilla movies because they share a last name?) and leaps from place to place, skipping over key dramatic moments. (How’d they get King Kong in chains on a ship bound for Antarctica?)  Even returning characters are given nothing to do; Kyle Chandler, one of the key humans in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, appears here in a total of seven scenes, mostly staring at computers.

Warner Bros.

At least director Adam Wingard has made Godzilla vs. Kong more visually appealing than King of the Monsters, a film where the first big monster fight too place in Antarctica at night in the middle of a blizzard. This time, the CGI battles are generally clear and exciting. There’s one in the middle of the ocean with Godzilla and Kong stomping on enormous aircraft carriers, and an even more dynamic tussle set around the neon-lit Hong Kong skyline. Ben Seresin’s colorful cinematography remains a consistent highlight throughout. This is a good-looking movie.

If the creators of Godzilla vs. Kong aspired to make anything more than that, however, they came up short. 2014’s Godzilla emphasized the human toll of its cataclysmic skirmishes; it actually considered what it might look and feel like to witness a creature the size of Godzilla rampage through a city. Godzilla vs. Kong seems so disinterested in its characters that it can barely bring itself to introduce several of them. (Lance Reddick has a tiny part as The Guy Who Stands Next to Kyle Chandler, Looking Concerned.) Hong Kong is laid to waste and the most anyone can say about its populace is a stray line of dialogue about the city getting evacuated just in the nick of time. (Phew.) If these decisions were deliberately chosen to create a cinematic portrait of mankind’s insignificance, they did their job all too well.

Rating: 4/10

Gallery — The Most Important Crossover Films in History: