Home > Reviews > GODZILLA VS. KONG – Tom Holkenborg

GODZILLA VS. KONG – Tom Holkenborg

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Shared multiverses are such an important part of contemporary cinema these days. It feels like every new successful film, no matter what the genre, feels the need to expand its scope to encompass a range of endless spinoffs, sequels, and prequels, and this is certainly the case in the world of fantasy and science fiction. Godzilla vs. Kong is the culmination of a near decade-long project by Legendary Pictures, and sees the timelines of the films Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) coming together in a battle for kaiju supremacy. The film is set five years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and follows a complicated (but patently ridiculous) plot about evil corporations building giant robots, and the theory that the center of the earth is actually hollow, but it’s really just all an excuse for Godzilla and King Kong to have an enormous on-screen fight amid the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and using those basic prerequisites, it’s a success. The film is directed by Adam Wingard, stars Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kyle Chandler, and Demián Bichir, and has a score by Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg.

All of the four films in the Legendary Monsterverse have had different composers – Alexandre Desplat scored Godzilla, Henry Jackman scored Kong: Skull Island, and Bear McCreary wrote one of his career highs for Godzilla: King of the Monsters – so thematic consistency in music has clearly never been one of the series’s priorities. As such, Godzilla vs. Kong sees Holkenborg starting from scratch yet again, abandoning everything that the other three composers did in their scores, and paying only the merest lip service to the original themes written by Akira Ifukube for the original Shōwa-era Toho Godzilla films of the 1950s. This is especially disappointing considering that the score McCreary wrote for the last film was a bonafide masterpiece which deeply acknowledged the Toho music, while also creating a host of new themes for the iconic kaiju.

Instead, Holkenborg’s score is based around three specific textures rather than clearly identifiable melodic ideas. The opening cue on the album, “Pensacola, Florida,” is the basis of the Godzilla Theme, which Holkenborg built around a huge brass section that plays in the lowest octave of their instruments. The second cue, “Skull Island,” is Holkenborg’s Kong Theme, and is based around two specific musical textures: a huge 8-foot bass drum, blended with a bass guitar which he ran through a 14-foot bass amplifier to give it a massive, rumbling sound. Holkenborg says “Kong’s music is the most diverse, with lush melodies interwoven between thunderous, drum-heavy action cues, while Godzilla’s theme is a one-trick pony, mostly because the reptilian behemoth isn’t one to display much emotion, unlike Kong who is a little more expressive and human in his personality.” Holkenborg goes on to say that “Kong’s theme has two parts of it; one is when he stands up and does the roar when he’s about to fight Godzilla. The other one is the emotional version of the theme, which is played on a bed of bass marimbas that play his harmony, and a Pacific Island flute that is playing a melody.

As I mentioned, Holkenborg says that his score does not directly use Ifukube’s Godzilla theme, but instead recreates “the sound of a tuba and trombone crashing in quick succession, which is what created the musical signature of Godzilla’s lumbering presence in the original movies more than 60 years ago”. His reasoning is that these Godzilla and Kong movies are very different from the originals in terms of tone (like Man of Steel was different from the 1978 Superman), and as such he felt that using anything that directly referenced Max Steiner’s King Kong theme or Ifukube’s exact Godzilla march would be inappropriate in this context. I’m not sure I buy that reasoning – after all, Bear McCreary didn’t have any issues incorporating that music into his score – but at least this sort of explains Holkenborg’s thinking, and why the score sounds the way it does.

“Pensacola, Florida” does indeed open with a massive explosion of low, throbbing brass, before moving away from that sound into a textural sequence for percussion and distorted electronica. “Skull Island” is a little more compositionally interesting, combining some quite epic-sounding brass passages with smaller, more intimate writing for strings and woodwinds that have a queasy, uncertain quality to them. The ’island flute’ motif appears for the first time around the 2:35 mark, and is actually quite pretty and intimate, offering a more peaceful and naturalistic side to Kong’s personality.

The score’s final main idea is related to the shadowy tech company “Apex Cybernetics” and its creation of a fearsome Mechagodzilla as a means to exterminate the kaiju once and for all. To capture the advanced technological science used to create Mechagodzilla, Holkenborg leans heavily on hard electronica, underpinning his orchestral textures with an array of synth pulses, swirling cascades of sound, and sometimes quite hard industrial noises. Some of the orchestral ideas that accompany the sound are interesting – listen especially for the churning clarinets in that opening cue – but for the most part the Mechagodzilla music is harsh, incessant, and in your face, with a strong (and probably intentional) 1980s quality that makes me think of scores like Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator.

The rest of the score is essentially built around statements of these three main ideas, surrounded by a whole host of orchestral and electronic noise that is certainly very loud, but never really seems to add up to a whole lot. My issue with this score, really, is the same issue I had with Holkenborg’s breakthrough score Mad Max Fury Road in 2015, which is a lack of narrative development and musical storytelling. Far too much of Godzilla vs. Kong feels dramatically inert; it’s big enough and bombastic enough for you to clearly realize that *something* important is going on, but it’s never nuanced enough to give you any detail beyond “this is a fight” and “this is not a fight”. These are apparently the only two things Holkenborg needs the audience to know – are they fighting or not? If the music is loud, fighting. If the music is soft, not fighting.

It’s also quite disappointing to hear that, with a few exceptions here and there, the level of orchestral sophistication and detail that was so refreshingly welcome in scores like Mortal Engines, Scoob, and Sonic the Hedgehog, is mostly gone here. There is a mighty brutality to this score, which is probably exactly what Holkenborg was going for considering who and what Godzilla and Kong are, but emphasizing that kind of raw power does not have to mean sacrificing all the clever instrumental detail. Both Alexandre Desplat and Bear McCreary were able to capture the colossal strength of Godzilla without sacrificing all the cool orchestral touches in their scores. Holkenborg, for whatever reason, does not appear to have been able to do that.

That’s not to say there are not some fun and enjoyable parts to this score, because there absolutely are. The electronic tones in “A New Language” have a mysterious and other-worldly sound that is very appealing. The statement of Kong’s theme in “Through There” is appropriately heroic, as is the more mysterious flute-and-marimba version in the subsequent “Antarctica”. The first couple of minutes of “Hollow Earth” has an exotic jungle sound, filled with tribal percussion and an adventurous spirit that is really quite excellent, and actually may be one of my favorite musical moments in the score (although it is ruined somewhat by the oddly distorted synths in the second half of the cue). Similarly, the epic brass chords in “The Throne” have a sense of majesty to them which is appropriately spine-tingling in context.

However, most of the big action sequences – starting with “Tasman Sea”– are filled with the relentless hammering of live and electronic percussion, thunderous orchestral outbursts featuring rampant brass and energetic string runs, and some rather abstract choral ideas that occasionally recall the music heard in the film’s trailer, and which was based on György Ligeti’s classical masterpiece “Requiem”. There are huge statements of both Godzilla’s theme and Kong’s theme running through all these pieces, and the overall scope of them is undeniably epic, but there is just something about them that is strangely unengaging, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Perhaps it’s the straightforwardness of the percussion patterns, or the basic raft of whole notes that the brass section continually delivers, or the weirdly dated sound that the synths bring, or the combination of all three, but I can’t shake the sensation that too much of this feels like a first draft demo, getting the basics down before all the cool touches are added in, rather than the finished product.

The final four cues, beginning with “Nuclear Blast” and ending with “Hong Kong” almost 29 minutes later, underscore the final battles, first between Kong and Godzilla, and then between Kong and Godzilla and Mechagodzilla, amid the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. The score’s three primary musical identities – Kong’s theme, Godzilla’s theme, and the Mechagodzilla textures – are all present here, fighting to be heard amid a relentless battering ram of orchestral overkill, throbbing electronic sound effects, percussive hammering, and occasional choral outbursts. And, look, I absolutely get what Holkenborg is doing. This music is written to accompany scenes of monstrous behemoths slugging it out, crashing into buildings, swinging giant battle axes, and breathing nuclear fire. It’s not supposed to be subtle. But – as I alluded to before – it’s just so unambitious in terms of what the music is actually doing, that one can’t help but be disappointed. The rhythmic ideas underpinning it all are energetic but somehow seem stagnant, pounding away with nothing but that energy to lean on. Considering Holkenborg’s background as a DJ for electronic dance music, you would think that he would understand the importance of, and put much more emphasis on, the ebbs and flows, the shifts in dominance in battle as one or the other of the three monsters gains the upper hand, but instead the music just pounds away – thukka thukka thukka thukka – with no clear storytelling aspect to make the spectacle have any depth.

To be fair, there is a statement of Kong’s theme in “Mega” that is very satisfying, as is the massive electronic fanfare of the Mechagodzilla motif that comes later in the cue, although the ‘start your engines’ noises towards the end of the cue are more of a cacophonous irritant, despite what they mean in context. Similarly, the opening moments of “Hong Kong” have a sense of grandeur, especially when the choir combines with both Kong’s theme and Godzilla’s theme, and later there are some exciting moments where the strings, drums, and electronic percussion combine to create a sense of relentless and thrilling forward motion. The final part of the cue builds up quite a head of steam, and here – finally – Holkenborg actually uses the electronics in a more melodic way, with a dance-like line that leaps around under the drum loops for more than a minute, doubled by strings, starting around the 9-minute mark. It all ends with a more downbeat, restrained sequence for soft strings, percussion, and keyboards, and then a final blast of Kong’s theme, alluding to the potential for further Monsterverse adventures.

I almost feel bad for coming down as hard on Godzilla vs. Kong as I have, but that’s the price you pay when you have shown as much improvement as Tom Holkenborg has over the past few years. The change in the quality from things like Mad Max Fury Road to things like Mortal Engines and Sonic the Hedgehog has been quite remarkable, and while Godzilla vs. Kong is certainly more compelling than anything he was writing in the early 2010s, for me it still represents something of a step back in terms of ambition and sophistication. There are certainly moments where the score is thoroughly enjoyable – notably the big statements of the two main themes, the sultry jungle feeling of “Hollow Earth,” and parts of the finale. Unfortunately, for me, the lack of clear narrative development and dramatic musical storytelling is frustrating, the lack of references to the original Ifukube themes is disappointing, and the over-reliance on occasionally dated and cheap-sounding electronics and simplistic rhythmic drumming makes it pale in comparison to everything that Desplat, Jackman, and McCreary did.

Buy the Godzilla vs. Kong soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Pensacola, Florida (Godzilla Theme) (2:18)
  • Skull Island (Kong Theme) (7:24)
  • Apex Cybernetics (2:02)
  • A New Language (2:29)
  • Just Now (1:50)
  • Tasman Sea (9:30)
  • Through There (1:25)
  • Antarctica (2:36)
  • Hollow Earth (3:48)
  • The Throne (2:11)
  • Lunch (1:59)
  • Nuclear Blast (3:59)
  • The Royal Axe (4:48)
  • Mega (7:39)
  • Hong Kong (13:14)

Running Time: 67 minutes 09 seconds

Watertower Music (2021)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Orchestrations by Sara Barone. Additional music by Antonio Di Iorio. Recorded and mixed by Tom Holkenborg. Edited by Daniel Waldman and Clint Bennett. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.

  1. Matthew
    April 6, 2021 at 10:40 am

    Overall, the soundtrack is great, but I confess that I was disappointed when I found out that Bear McCreary would not do the soundtrack for this movie because I wanted to know what theme he would put for Kong. But Junkie XL is very good too, so I decided to trust. Particularly my favorite Kong theme is that of James Newton Howard for the 2005 film, it has the same characteristics as this new theme.

  2. Marco Ludema
    April 7, 2021 at 8:22 am

    I feel like Holkenborg is one of those composers who gives his best work when he’s outside of his comfort zone. While I do like the main theme in this one, I didn’t feel like listening to the rest.

  3. Alain Meyer
    April 7, 2021 at 3:55 pm

    It’s awful and sounds like it was recorded in someone’s bedroom on an old keyboard. Holkenborg was awful earlier in his film music career before seeming to grow in competence. This is a hideous step back. The guy doesn’t know how to write film music.

    • Carlos M.
      April 21, 2021 at 3:23 pm

      Lol as if you could write anything resembling film music, let alone on an old keyboard in someone’s bedroom. Not liking the score is fine, but the dumb hyperbole is not funny, leave that for edgy 12 yr olds.

  4. Michael
    April 7, 2021 at 7:26 pm

    Ain’t the Godzilla theme basically Ifukube’s original brass motif for the lizard? On the sequels he decided to use the secondary theme for the rescue teams to represent Godzilla but that brass motif sounds a lot here, but RCfied.

    I think the lack of influence from Conrad Pope’s orchestations and Holkenborg recording and mixing his scores to sound so loud and fake brings down his music.

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