As I mentioned a couple Friday Flotsams ago, I got out to see Godzilla vs. Kong: first time back in a theater for a long time. I have to delve into full spoilers in order to discuss my thoughts, so fair warning now. If you haven’t seen it an have any interest in doing so, I’ll just say that I liked it a lot, despite it being utterly ridiculous and abounding in stupidity. I am also very glad I got to see it without any (or many) spoilers, for reasons that will become apparent.
That out of the way:
The plot is that some years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla suddenly begins making raids on coastal cities, targeting facilities of the ‘Apex’ corporation: a cybernetics company. With Godzilla seemingly turning hostile, public opinion swerves against him.
Meanwhile, Skull Island has become completely consumed by the surrounding storm, rendering it uninhabitable and wiping out most of the native life, including the people except for one little girl (I have to say: having been irritated by the utopian colonial-penance figures in Kong: Skull Island I was rather darkly amused to learn they had all been killed off by natural forces). Kong himself is kept alive inside an enormous containment dome that preserves part of the jungle, though he’s growing restless and has become too large for the environment to sustain him.
(This film takes its predecessor’s trend of creating absurdly enormous and expensive devices and cranks it up beyond infinity, by the way. Who the heck approve funding for the miles-wide biodome with holographic technology to preserve the giant ape on an isolated, extremely hostile island? “Well, we can either give every American a complete income tax refund for the next few years or keep the giant gorilla alive.” “Let’s do that one”).
Kong’s chief researcher recognizes that Kong can’t survive here, but fears that if they try to move him it will provoke Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another Alpha kaiju in his territory.
Through some manipulation by the Apex corporation (which has its own agenda), an apparent old flame of hers convinces her to bring Kong to Antarctica, where there’s an entrance to the hollow earth (there’s some ridiculous nonsense about ‘bio-memories’ where creatures naturally want to return to where their species originated. I mean, even by the goofy standards of the science in the Monsterverse, that’s another level. Though, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t work in the event).
In any case, Kong is sedated, loaded onto a barge, and shipped to Antarctica, putting him on a collision course with an already-angered Godzilla.
Meanwhile, Maddy Russell from King of the Monsters, accompanied by her loser friend and a goofy conspiracy-theorist has taken up the investigation of Apex, convinced that Godzilla must have a reason for what he does and determined to prove it.
So, the film is utterly ridiculous, even for a kaiju flick (and to be honest, I prefer them to be more restrained than this: the Heisei films of the 90s are about the sweet spot for me when it comes to tone).
Now, to me the most important thing about this film was that the monsters would be played with respect and, well, frankly, how they ended the fight. And I’m please to say that in both cases I thought the film passed with flying colors (Godzilla is still a little too heroic for my tastes, but he’s otherwise pretty perfectly in character).
The battles give full scope to both monsters’ power and capabilities (well, Godzilla has a harder time tagging Kong with his ray than he probably should, but you can see why that was necessary). Kong is agile and clever, using tools and tricks to his advantage, while Godzilla is overwhelmingly powerful and durable, with a potential trump card in his atomic ray. When they fight on the ocean, Godzilla thoroughly dominates due to being a semi-aquatic creature. When they fight in the city, Kong has more of an advantage due to the abundant cover and high-ground (Kong’s talent for climbing buildings is used to a frankly ridiculous extent here, as I’m highly skeptical these buildings could support his new weight. But again, it fits the tone of the film and it’s what we want to see). He also picks up an axe from the center of the earth that allows him to even the playing field a bit against Godzilla’s ray.
In short, the film allows its title bout to play out more or less according to the nature of the characters. Which is to say: Godzilla not only wins, but wins decisively, taking both rounds with Kong, while the best Kong can do is knock him down for a bit. To top everything off, Godzilla finishes the second bout in a manner that suggests he had actually been holding back for most of the film. Once he goes all-out, Godzilla utterly dominates Kong. Oh, Kong puts up a good fight, but at the end of the day Godzilla is simply a much more powerful being than he is and much credit to the filmmakers for being honest enough to see that a fight between them can really only end one way.
I also really like how the fight ends: Godzilla savagely mauls Kong, puts his foot on his chest, and roars in his face. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he could kill Kong easily in that moment. But then…he doesn’t. Whether out of respect or simply because he perceives that Kong is no longer a threat, Godzilla spares him and leaves him to live or die on his own. That’s a great touch, re-asserting the fundamental nobility and dignity of the Godzilla character and ending their battle on a satisfying note. Not to mention that it makes their subsequent alliance that much more believable.
(I can’t resist noting that this means that Godzilla shows more mercy and humanity than Batman. But that’s another story).
So, I found the film’s take on the titular match up to be, by and large, extremely satisfying. It actually reminded me of something like a full-length Death Battle episode, where the goal seems to be just to show off all that the respective combatants can do and how they stack up against each other. Again, things like Kong climbing on buildings (there’s a bit where he waits on top of a skyscraper to ambush Godzilla: posed just as he was in the original film), Godzilla using his nature as a sea monster to full advantage, Kong using crude weapons, trying to pull Godzilla’s jaws apart, and so on. There was really no effort whatever to make any of this realistic. The goal seems to have been to make it ‘what you would imagine’ the fight to be, the kind of cartoonish, comic-book style action suggested by the question “Who would win: King Kong or Godzilla?” (Freddy vs. Jason did something similar, though to a less extreme degree). It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.
As for the rest of the film…ah, mixed bag.
In the first place, I rather liked ‘Team Kong’: the researcher, her maybe-ex-boyfriend, and the little girl. The fact that the latter only speaks in sign language was a nice touch (the fact that Kong now speaks it is…well, interesting. Certainly not out of the question for the character). I especially appreciate that the boyfriend, though he gets sneered at for being nervous around Kong (and why? How is that in any way an unreasonable reaction?), he subsequently gets many opportunities to show his courage and be heroic, protecting the woman and child, and actually gets acknowledged and appreciated for it. Thank you movie for that!
‘Team Godzilla’, on the other hand, is mostly just annoying. We have the smart, on-the-ball teenage girl, her overweight nerdy male friend, and the goofy conspiracy theorist. Pretty standard contemporary dynamic. Why couldn’t we have the male friend be on a level with her? Why couldn’t the adult be actually mature and level-headed? Why couldn’t you have had some kind of balance of the three, or baring that, just drop one or more to make everyone heroic and useful (Team Kong had that courtesy), or at bare minimum, not annoying? To be fair, nerdy friend does get to save the day in the end with a moment of inspiration, but gets no appreciation or growth from it. Kyle Chandler’s character is likewise completely wasted in the ‘not now, kiddo’ role. Why not have father and daughter both working on the problem and dump conspiracy theorist and loser friend? That way we’d have an actual, you know, relationship on our hands.
Also, the Apex facilities have ridiculously incompetent security, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
The human villains aren’t much to write home about either. Evil corporate guy has a plan to eliminate and replace Godzilla, his haughty ‘corporate chick’ daughter serves as the heavy on Team Kong while being ridiculously stupid at several points, and then there’s the henchman / pilot. The latter is inexplicably named ‘Ren Serizawa’, suggesting a connection with Ken Watanabe’s character of the past films. This never effects anything or even comes up, making me wonder why they bothered.
It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that Apex is making Mechagodzilla. But there is a bit of a twist: they’re using one of King Ghidorah’s heads as the control basis so that they can piggy-back off of his telepathy.
Now I love this idea: blending two of Godzilla’s biggest and most important opponents and giving his archnemesis another shot at him to close out the trilogy. In fact, I like the idea so much that I wish they had given Mechagodzilla his own film to fully explore the implications. I mean, a man is mentally linked up with King Ghidorah: there is a tremendous amount of stuff you can do with that idea (as a matter of fact, this idea seems to have been drawn from one of Marc Ceresini’s novels, which did explore the implications. In the book the pilot of Mecha-Ghidorah was a teenage girl, who becomes increasingly twisted by her contact with the King of Terror. At one point her guardian recounts coming home to find her eating a bird she’d killed. As I say, this is an idea that you really need time to explore).
This also reminds me of how much I wish they had dropped the stupid ‘Orca’ device from the previous film and just brought back the telepathy angle of the Heisei films. They could have made the Millie-Bobby Brown character this series’ version of Miki Saegusa. That would have covered about five or six plot holes right there. But I digress.
Anyway, though I wish the Mechagodzilla stuff had been given more time, what they have is pretty good, giving full-scope to his overwhelming power even with his limited screentime. We get the traditional beam-lock with Godzilla, as well as several new weapons, like a drill-tipped tail. I can’t say I care for the new design that much, however: it’s too busy and lacks the cold, smooth, metallic look of previous incarnations that stood out so well against its living counterpart. I also wish that Godzilla had been allowed to participate more in finishing him off, but I suppose they wanted to throw Kong a bone after losing the title fight. It also works given that it was Kong’s persistence that left Godzilla too worn-out to properly challenge Mechagodzilla in the first place, making it something of a penitential act on Kong’s part to finish the job.
The ‘energy source’ plot was great in concept: of course for something like Mechagodzilla the biggest problem would be finding a way to power him (in the 1992 film they specified that they were using a nuclear reactor). Employing Kong to find a secret source of power is also directly taken from the plot of King Kong Escapes, which is all kinds of awesome (I should say that the filmmakers include many homages and nods to classic Toho; they clearly did their research). However, when they actually find it, they sort of…email the energy? Huh? I get they wanted to move things along, but they should have bitten the bullet and just had someone ferry it back to the surface (it would have meant differing corporate chick’s comeuppance, but then they could have gotten it without her being suicidally stupid).
Speaking of which, the additions to Kong’s character were…interesting. At the very least, they show a willingness on the part of the filmmakers to get creative and to try to add something to such a venerable figure. The trip to the hollow earth was a glorious piece of pulp sci-fi nonsense, a chance to go creatively crazy with landscapes above and below and a shifting gravity field, as well as, of course, your standard horrible monsters for Kong to fight (flying snake things: certainly an appropriate denizen for the center of the earth).
On that note, the movie takes a kind of ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to creativity, drawing from classic Toho films, pulp adventures, previous Kong films, and others for a hodgepodge of sci-fi ideas. We have giant monsters, giant robots, telepathic aliens, a globe-spanning underground fast-delivery system, a prehistoric world at the center of the earth, conspiracies, gravitational anomalies, and on and on. I love the freedom and exuberance that the filmmakers show in just throwing all this stuff at the screen.
That said, I’m not sure about the suggestion of a Kong culture that once existed in the center of the Earth, or of an actual war between Kongs and Godzillas (frankly, I don’t particularly like the idea of Godzilla being a species in the first place: he ought to be a unique or almost unique being, mutated out of whatever genus he had once occupied into what he is now. Again, the Heisei films gave what I thought was the best origin story for him). It seems a little too much. Though the bit where Kong takes his seat on a giant throne, an actual king at last, was pretty cool.
Godzilla being able to blast down in the center of the Earth with his ray was frankly the most ridiculously stupid thing in the film. Actually, my main complaint about his portrayal here is that he uses his ray way too much and for too long at a stretch: a one point he keeps it going for minutes on end while trying to tag Kong. That kind of undermines it as a weapon, and I think he should have a pretty clear limit on how long he can fire it for, so that when he does use it for an extended period, it’s more impactful for the fact that he’s clearly making a special effort (e.g. when he shoots the meteor at the end of Godzilla: Final Wars). They over do his plates lighting up as well: I don’t really like him using it as a threat display. I prefer to know that once they start to glow, it means the ray is coming. But that’s more a problem from the previous film.
Again, though, I was overall very satisfied. The most important thing wasn’t necessarily that the plot was well-thought out or that the monster’s abilities were perfectly portrayed. It was that the characters were treated with respect and allowed to be themselves. And they pretty much nailed that: Godzilla and Kong are both the dangerous, noble, ferocious kings they ought to be. Their dynamic, with Godzilla being the unstoppable, world-defying juggernaut tasked with battling existential threats and Kong the scrappy, defiant, but ultimately out-classed independent party just seeking a place to survive, was perfect.
That is really the chief difference between them, thematically: Kong is about nature being conquered by man. For all his power, he ultimately can’t compete with human civilization and so falls. Here, in a more modern twist, man is alternately trying to preserve and protect Kong and exploit him for their own ends. In any case, Kong is ultimately vulnerable to man. Godzilla, on the other hand, is nature that cannot be conquered: he is the consequence of that supposed conquest. As Boethius put it, anything that escapes from the order assigned to it only falls back into a different order. If man disrupts the order of nature, a more fundamental order, one that he cannot disrupt, is called into play. Godzilla is the embodiment of this deeper nature: the unexpected, disastrous, and uncontrollable consequences of disruption.
So, thematically, you could put it that when man kills Kong, he creates Godzilla (which is sort of what happened with the original films, as Godzilla was partly inspired by King Kong).
Of course, this is another reason the fight can only end one way. For all his power, Kong is fundamentally vulnerable to man. Godzilla isn’t. The question facing the humans in one case is ‘what do we do with Kong?’ whereas in the other it’s ‘can we do anything against Godzilla?’ This is what makes each one interesting, and also what dictates the outcome of their encounter.
In any case, I really enjoyed Godzilla vs. Kong. It was a completely insane, ridiculous, and delightful romp with some of my all-time favorite characters, and for once the filmmakers actually paid what felt like genuine respect to the classics that came before them rather than adopting a faux-superior stance. It could have been a lot better (e.g. fixing the ‘team Godzilla’ storyline), but its high points are so immensely satisfying that I don’t really mind too much. I think that, for all their flaws, I will be glad to have the entire Legendary trilogy on my DVD shelf as a tribute to my most beloved film franchise of them all.
Chatting a little while ago with a friend (whose site you should definitely check out and whose work you should buy), we touched on the subject of the original King Kong and its relation to later versions of the story. It got me thinking about the film, and different aspects about it, and so I thought I’d give a rundown of my thoughts on it.
This is one of those films that everyone knows about, and knows the basic story to, even if they haven’t seen it, and Kong is arguably one of the great original creations of cinema. It occurs to me as I write this that it’s actually rather rare to have a genuinely classic story come out of the movies themselves; usually the truly great, pervasive works have their origins in some earlier work outside the movie screen. Even It’s a Wonderful Life started out as a short story, and Casablanca began life as an unproduced play. I’m certainly not going to say that Kong is the only such story, but it’s certainly one of the foremost examples (Star Wars would be another).
The story starts with Carl Denham, a motion picture director (heavily based on writer-producer-director Merian C. Cooper himself) who “makes motion pictures in jungles and places.” He has a unique idea for a new film and is under intense pressure to get started, as he is in a somewhat dicey legal position regarding the explosives he’s bringing. Trouble is, his agent can’t (or won’t) find him a leading lady, so he goes out to find one himself (“even if I have to marry one!”) and happens to run across Ann Darrow, a hungry, out of work actress as she considers stealing an apple. Struck by her looks and feeling for her plight, he offers her the job.
On the long voyage out (Denham doesn’t say where they’re going until well toward the end), Jack Driscall, the tough first mate finds himself reluctantly falling in love with Ann, who meanwhile easily befriends the rest of the crew. When they arrive on the island (“way west of Sumatra”), they find the natives in the midst of a ceremony to sacrifice a girl to ‘Kong.’ The visitors’ presence spoils the ceremony, but the chief spies Ann and decides she must be the new sacrifice (“Blondes are scarce around here”). The native sneak aboard the ship that night, kidnap her, and offer her to Kong, who carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscall, and a good part of the crew pursue him, encountering various dinosaurs and other dangers. Kong defends Ann from the other monsters and appears to be, in his own way, falling in love with her.
Driscall and Denham are soon the only survivors of the rescue operation and are separated. Driscall rescues Ann from Kong’s lair, while Denham regroups with the others. Kong pursues them to the village, breaks through the wall protecting it, and goes on a rampage until Denham stops him with a gas bomb. They take him back to New York and put him on display, but he’s enraged by the photographers’ flashbulbs and breaks free, pursuing Ann across the city and finally carrying her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is killed in combat with airplanes.
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this film, but rewatching it for this review I was struck anew by how good it really is. Sure, there are a lot of things you could pick apart, such as Kong’s deliberately inconsistent size, the question of just how they got him back to New York, and Denham’s laughably understaffed film (which consists of himself as director and cameraman and a single leading lady). The old-fashioned acting is another aspect that some might have trouble with (this was made only a few years into the sound era and the acting style hadn’t quite adjusted yet. Fay Wray in particular never stops moving whenever she’s on camera), though if you’re going to watch old films at all you have to take them in their own style.
But the interesting thing about those plot holes is that they all exist for a definite purpose; they aren’t things that the filmmakers forgot about or didn’t care enough to bother with, they are clearly conscious choices meant to streamline the story. Denham having a more realistically sized crew would have added a lot of extraneous characters (as it did in the Peter Jackson remake). Showing how they got Kong to New York would have stopped the story just as it was reaching its climax, assuming it could have been accounted for at all. And Kong’s size, of course, is just a matter of making him as impactful as possible in each scene. The filmmakers slur over these bits in order to have the story they want, but these don’t detract from the story the way that say a major internal inconsistency would be.
Call it special pleading if you like, but I think there is a difference. Partly because what the film does leave in all pretty much works and works well. Denham’s reason for needing a girl, and why he can’t just stay in New York until he finds one, Ann’s motivations for accepting a dangerous and unclear job from Denham (it’s the Depression and she needs work, not to mention he’s already shown her kindness by sticking up for her before he even saw her face), her interactions with Driscall and the crew, even things like Denham’s reason for bringing her along on their first landing on the island (he wants to be sure to have her on hand in case he can get some filming done). There’s a reason for everything the characters do, and a reason that makes sense and fits with the characters they’ve established. Crazy as the film gets, the plot works and the characters behave like human beings.
That’s really something that needs to be drawn attention to. This is a simple, straightforward adventure fantasy, yet the characters are all quite well drawn. With one exception they’re not super well developed, but they’re clearly people, with all that implies. Driscall’s character’s established right away with his sharp questioning of Denham’s theater agent, and his first interaction with Ann involves him accidentally hitting her on the chin (they laugh about it a moment later, establishing an emotional connection in spite of his gruffness). He’s a tough sailor who doesn’t like having a woman onboard, claiming they’re “a nuisance”. By the middle of the first act, it’s clear that Ann’s a nuisance to him because he’s falling for her (his way of talking to Ann without looking at her says as much as pages of dialogue might have).
Ann herself is a sweet, unaffected girl who seems to enjoy teasing Driscall and gets along well with the whole crew, chatting easily with anyone from the captain to the Chinese cook. I like how she starts off somewhat shy and uneasy (shown by her being bundled up in a jacket while they’re leaving port), but is visibly more relaxed once the journey reaches its end, signaling to the audience how much time has passed, as well as letting us see how the trip is doing her good. Their romance is very lightly sketched, but charming; like a kitten with a big guard dog (another great little detail is how he’s visibly uncomfortable in his tuxedo in the final act).
Captain Englehorn’s a rather interesting departure from what one might expect, being a dapper elderly gentleman (Ann calls him a “sweet old lamb,” much to Jack’s amusement), but also a thoroughly in-control and experienced captain who knows how to approach native peoples and speaks their languages. That’s the kind of character you really don’t see much these days, but was quite common back then: what might be called the blue-collar gentleman, a sailor or soldier who looks and acts more like he’d be at home in an office or school, but who nevertheless knows his job and can command his men with ease.
I also really like Charlie the cook, who is amusingly dour (“someday me go back China; never see no more potatoes”), but good-natured and plays a vital role in discovering that Ann’s been kidnapped (how simple is that: he finds native beads on the deck, a very little bit of thought tells him what this must mean and so he takes immediate action by arousing the ship, just like a sailor ought to do in this situation). I’m sure some people would call him a racist caricature because he speaks the way a recent Chinese immigrant working on a merchant ship in the 1930s might be expected to speak, but he’s a very likable character, able to banter with the rest of the crew and being eager to join in the rescue operation (he’s also one of the few characters who returned for the sequel, Son of Kong, which is a whole other story, but at least shows that the writers liked him as much as I do).
Denham’s the standout among the human cast. He’s an enthusiastic high-concept filmmaker who makes movies in remote corners of the world at great personal risk, who takes big chances for big gains, and who has a tendency to shoot off without considering how his actions will affect others (as shown in his first conversation with Ann where he starts talking about how she’s in for “money and adventure and fame…and a long sea voyage that starts tomorrow!” before he’s even told her his name or what kind of job he’s offering her). But the thing is, he’s reckless, slightly myopic, and a little crazy, but he’s not a bad man at all. He places people in dangerous situations without telling them all he knows, but he puts himself on the line to keep them safe and he’s honest as far as he goes; he’ll hold back information, but he won’t lie. After Ann’s kidnapped, he drops all talk of the movie until she’s safe and only then hits on the idea of catching Kong alive. He’s also well-portrayed enough that we can see money isn’t really his object; it’s the achievement that interests him, which is why we don’t doubt him when he promises to share the profits with the whole crew. There’s a good moment toward the end when they’re talking to the reporters. Denham starts by directing their attention to Driscall, who gives credit to Denham, who gives all the credit to Ann. Note the basic, easy decency involved; each character tries to draw attention what the others have done rather than trying to elevate themselves. Again, it fits with what we know of them and reminds us that, for all Denham is making a terrible mistake, he’s still a decent man. Note that he also tries to warn off the photographers when he realizes that Kong’s becoming enraged by their flashbulbs (and I like that he realizes why Kong’s so angry: “he thinks you’re attacking the girl!”).
Most people come away from the film rooting for Kong and hating Denham, but it’s not so simple as that. Denham’s not the villain by any stretch, he’s a basically good man with big ideas who let his ambition outstrip his common sense and created a tragic situation.
I also want to say a word about the natives. They’re what such characters usually were in those days of cinema; which is to say, they’re Black people in grass skirts and coconut bras, who are primitive and superstitious, able to be scared off by gunfire. At first glance, many would probably prefer the terrifying, Uruk-Hai-like natives of the Peter Jackson version, or the unsmiling utopian natives of Kong: Skull Island.
Me, I don’t like the natives in either of those films because I think they’re too simplistic and one-note. The ones in this film might be unlike any real native peoples, but they are people. They can be reasoned with, they have clear motivations, and they react to the things going on around them in an understandable way. There are little human details, like how when the chief marches down the steps to confront the visitors, a small child doesn’t get that he’s supposed to move until his parents yank him out of the chief’s way, or the behavior of the girl who was to be the original sacrifice; she isn’t struggling like Ann does, but she certainly doesn’t look happy and she kind of flinches whenever someone touches her. Contrast this with the Jackson film, where they natives are just movie monsters, or Skull Island, where they’re just colonial penance figures (oddly, the only other ‘Kong’ film I’ve seen that achieves something like this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, where the natives have a similar blend of primitive simplicity and frank humanity: “The chief says you can stay, but he will not be responsible if the monster comes down from the mountains and eats you up”).
Of course, the big story here is Kong himself, and my goodness; what an achievement he is! In reality an eighteen-inch, articular model covered in latex and rabbit fur, the genius of Willis O’Brien brings him to startling life, one frame at a time. This is less due to the seamlessness of the stop-motion (it isn’t seamless) than to the personality and expression captured in the character. Kong not only moves but acts. He conveys genuine emotions in his face and actions, showing everything from savage rage to innocent curiosity and playfulness to sadness and confusion (his final moments on the Empire State Building are heartbreaking). This emotive power and personality is a large reason why he remains essentially sympathetic, despite some of the frankly shocking things he does.
Which brings us to the effects in this film, which are truly amazing, not only in their skill, but their scope. Once the characters arrive on the island, the effects are deployed almost non-stop with a prodigality that rivals modern CG extravaganzas. There are scenes that are jaw dropping in their complexity, such as Kong’s lair, which features matte-paintings, two stop-motion characters, separate inserts for two live-action actors, super-imposed smoke, and more, all moving at the same time, and all presented so seamlessly that most viewers won’t even recognize the scene for the masterpiece it is. Or just look at the scene when they’re landing on the island, in a wide beach shot with the wall in the distance and animated birds flying by; quick, almost incidental, until you realize it required two or three different kinds of special effects to pull it off.
Also keep in mind that it took about fifteen hours of work to get a single minute of screen time from Kong, and they essentially had only one take per scene. That this film is so free with its effects, and that they are so intricate, and yet so effective, is nothing short of amazing, especially when you remember that this was made only a few years into the sound era. Every special effects driven film made since has been following in its footsteps, and in a way none of them have topped it since.
But technical skill only takes you so far. It’s the artistry, even more than the talent that makes this film. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and absolutely dripping with atmosphere and imagination. Consider the main setting; an isolated, uncharted island shrouded in fog. An island where the people live on a narrow strip of beach protected by a giant wall so ancient that the natives have “slipped back; forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” On the other side of the island is a mist-shrouded, primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, under the shadow of a mountain shaped like a skull. Once the expedition arrives at the island, practically every frame looks as though it could have been the cover of an adventure novel or a fantasy magazine. The film is truly a visual feast.
Most importantly, it’s quite simply a strikingly good story; one of those rare ones that feels like it could have come from mythology, except that its subject and ideas are so thoroughly steeped in the modern era. The whole thing is centered on the clash of nature and civilization, and it could only have come from a time when man had achieved sufficient and seemingly growing dominance over the natural world. Take the most spectacular creation of nature (a giant gorilla), shown to be able to master any other beast from a T-Rex on down and pit it against modern civilization, the world of movies, airplanes, and New York City. At the same time, there’s the idea that beauty is the thing that masters both man and beast; all the strength and power of either side is directed for the sake of a woman.
These are universal ideas, appealing to the very nature of man and woman, and of man and nature, and they’re realized with skill and a surprising degree of nuance. Unlike the remake, the film doesn’t really take sides in the conflict; we sympathize with Kong and feel for his plight and even like him as a character, but he’s also a horrifying monster who brutally kills any number of innocent people. Right there is the ambiguity of nature captured with the subtlety and accuracy of those who actually knows her. Cooper, along his co-writer/director Earnest B. Schoedstack had travelled all around the world and had lived in worked in wild places, filming live tigers and elephants in the jungle. Nature was not merely a political cause to them, to be advocated for from the comfort of a news studio as it is for most modern filmmakers; they knew her intimately and had no illusions about her.
Thus they portray the conflict between nature and civilization with a fairness so rarely to be found today that some might not even recognize it. New York is established to be a dangerous and unpleasant place in its own right, as illustrated by Denham’s comments about there probably plenty of girls in more danger then they’d ever see in the jungle, the view of the women lining up for a boarding house, and Ann herself being nearly reduced to theft. The crowds flowing in to seen Kong are likewise portrayed with an amusingly cynical touch (“Gorillas? Ain’t we got enough of them in New York?”), and of course it’s the reporters, acting against Denham’s warnings, that cause Kong to go berserk and break free.
But then, Skull Island is a pure nightmare; no fit place for human habitation. Even the savage natives who have “slipped back” from their own civilization can only survive by huddling behind a massive wall, one that they couldn’t have built and can only maintain. That is to say, even the natives are dependent upon such scraps of civilization as they have to keep nature at bay. There is no sentimental idea of ‘living in harmony with nature’ here. Kong may be capable of benevolence, and he’s a magnificent and even likable creature, but he is still a monster who could never possibly co-exist with people. Appealing as his pseudo-romance with Ann is, he’s incapable of considering her wishes or needs or comfort, and while his love for her makes him sympathetic, it can’t make him human. Once Kong has encountered civilization, his very nature means that sooner or later he will have to be destroyed.
That is precisely the tragedy. Kong’s fate isn’t the result of one or two bad actors, which might have been avoided had they been removed; it’s how things must play out due to his nature and that of civilized man (even if Denham had left him on the island after knocking him out, it would have been only a matter of time before someone else came along). If we’re to ask what would have been best, it would have been best if Kong had never been discovered. But then, we can only know that after he’s already been found. We see and admire the majesty and wonder of Kong, but only for a moment as our very meeting with him heralds his doom. Civilization, in its very admiration of nature, cannot help but destroy the thing it admires (note also the arrogance of Denham’s assumption that they can ‘teach him fear’ and so control Kong).
In the end, though, tragic as it is, there’s not really an alternative, because of the key figure of Ann. She’s both the most thoroughly civilized of the main cast (being a New York actress in a crew of sailors and explorers) and Kong’s first and chief link with civilization. The conflict with Kong is precipitated by the fact that he wants her, and obviously no one’s about to let him keep her if they can stop it.
So, what draws Kong into the conflict is his desire for beauty, and for that particular kind of beauty that only civilization produces. And of course, as a woman, Ann also conveys ideas of domesticity, home, stability, future generations, and so on: the things civilization is meant to guard and provide for.
While modern audiences may find it irritating, it was thematically necessary for Ann to be an extremely feminine, gentle type, in contrast with the strong masculinity of Driscall, the sailors, Denham, and of course, Kong himself. The former direct their strength and skill to her safety and comfort, while the later protects, but also grasps at her. She is ultimately the thing everyone wants and what they’re fighting over, and if we could sum up the point of the film in one sentence, it would be that men are strong and build civilizations all for the sake of keeping women safe from the wild dangers of the natural world.
But of course, that same beauty is also the great weakness of pure masculine strength, precisely because it commands and directs it. However strong a man or a monster may be, his desire determines how he will use that strength. Thus is the great and startling balance of the world; lover and beloved, man and woman. The lover, the active principle, is in a sense dominant as he initializes the action, but the beloved, the receptive principle, is what draws that strength and so could equally be said to be dominant because she commands his power to the extent that he loves and desires her. The very act of desiring something means that the things desired rules over you to the extent that you desire it. This motive power of loving and being loved was how the Medievals understood God to move the universe, Himself unmoved. Hence, “it was beauty killed the beast.”
There is a narrative going around that films of the past were simplistic affairs, black-and-white in more ways than one, and that modern stories have a more sophisticated, nuanced view of the world. I find myself that it’s often (not always of course) the opposite: modern stories tend to have a sheen of cynicism or complexity that makes them appear nuanced, but on closer inspection turn out to be rather crudely simplistic bluntly pushing a few ill-considered ideas and claiming sophistication on the grounds of they’re not being what you’d expect to find in an earlier film. There’s no ambiguity at all in, say, Avatar: natives are good, humans are bad, live in harmony with nature. Meanwhile John Ford was showing the ugliness and ambiguity of conflicts with American Indians back in the 1950s (see Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers, all of which, incidentally, were produced by Merian C. Cooper).
The 2005 remake of Kong is another good example (I don’t hate that film, by the way, but it is a massively inferior work), where the whole point basically amounted to feeling bad for Kong and disgusted with civilization. There’s a surface level verisimilitude in the dialogue and characters, but there’s none of the mythic grandeur or sophisticated storytelling or richness of the original. The characters themselves make far less sense (I don’t believe that Denham ever had the clout to film in wild, dangerous places or to have men follow him) and there is no ambiguity to it. The film practically hits us over the head with what we’re supposed to think about the whole thing.
As I’ve tried to show above, the original Kong, for all its gleeful silliness, is a very mature piece of work. It presents its story fairly without giving any easy or comforting answers to how we ought to feel about what happens, touching upon rich, deep themes in the process; ideas that, one way or another, have been with mankind from the beginning. And it’s just plain a really good story told in a very entertaining manner, not to mention being a technical masterpiece.
There is a reason why the film sticks with you afterwards, and why it’s become such a classic.
I’m going to introduce a new feature with this review, what I call ‘canon status.’ A film or book or game receives this when I think it is not only a great work in itself, but also deservedly part of our culture’s storytelling lexicon. Canon status means that the work ought to be seen and understood and passed on to the next generation as a worthy contribution to the stream of human culture.
King Kong is undoubtedly a Canon film.
“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”
That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.
I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.
There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.
This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.
For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.
Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.
Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).
In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.
Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.
Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.
That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.
Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).
And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).
In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.
Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.
I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.
I’d like to introduce you to actress Mie Hama. She’s a rather interesting person: born during World War II to blue collar parents, her home was destroyed in a bombing raid and she grew up poor. By the age of sixteen, she was working as a fare collector on the bus, and it was there that Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka found her and decided she might make a fine actress.
Anyway, Miss Hama went on to become one of the most popular actresses of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, and even to have some success outside it (more on that later). But at the height of her career she quit acting to get married and start a family, wanting only a “normal life.” She had four children and later became a popular TV and radio host, authoress, and advocate for traditional Japanese farming.
Now, Miss Hama has a peculiar distinction in the film world. As far as I know (and all things considered, I think I would know), she is the only actress to date who has been menaced by both King Kong and Godzilla, AND romanced by James Bond.
How’s that for a resume?
(To be fair, Akiko Wakabayashi also co-starred in You Only Live Twice – and plays a rather larger role – as well as having a role in King Kong vs. Godzilla, but she never interacts with either of the monsters).
Miss Hama was one of the stars of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, during the course of which the train she is riding is wrecked Godzilla, who then briefly (and presumably inadvertently) pursues her into a ravine, where she’s rescued by her boyfriend.
Later, as she tries to evacuate Tokyo before the approaching King Kong, she boards another train, which unfortunately runs directly across the path of the giant ape, who does what he does. Somewhat fortunately for her, Kong notices her and takes a liking, meaning that she gets to serve as this film’s version of Fay Wray (Kong climbs the Diet Building in this one). Kong is then knocked out by gas bombs and she is rescued before the great ape is airlifted to his showdown with Godzilla.
Some five years after tangling with the two greatest monsters of cinema, Miss Hama was picked to co-star alongside Sean Connery (and fellow King Kong vs. Godzilla alum Akiko Wakabayashi) in You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film. She plays the role of Kissy Suzuki, a Japanese agent assigned to pose as Bond’s wife while he’s undercover as a 6’2″ Japanese fisherman (granted, not the most convincing development in the history of the franchise). Kissy doesn’t really have a lot of screen time (she isn’t even introduced until an hour and a quarter into the two-hour film), but she manages to put what time she has to good use by steadfastly, and amusingly, resisting Bond’s attentions until the very end (“We’re supposed to be married!” “Think again, please; you gave false name to priest.”) and providing some solid back-up for Bond during their reconnaissance of Blofeld’s base. That, and spending about 90% of her time in a bikini.
Miss Hama later told stories of how difficult the experience of being a ‘Bond Girl’ was. Though she was a popular actress in Japan, she was still a fairly normal, down-to-earth person and so found herself overwhelmed by the publicity and pressure of the big Hollywood production. But, she said, Sean Connery – who also had a working class background – was very kind and chivalrous to her, constantly checking to make sure she was okay and looking out for her during the long shoot. Later she commented that her chief regret about the film was that she was too shy to try to get to know him better.
That same year, she tangled with Kong again as the villainous femme fatale Madam Piranha in the delightfully silly US-Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes (which is basically what happens when a King Kong film and a James Bond movie are put through the brundlefly machine together). This time around she’s a bad girl: a spy from an unknown foreign power in league with the villainous ‘Doctor Who,’ who intends to conquer the world with a mechanical copy of Kong (so, yes; it’s a pseudo-Bond film where King Kong battles Doctor Who, a Bond Girl, and MechaKong. Japan, ladies and gentlemen!).
So, there you have it; the girl who tangled with King Kong, Godzilla, AND James Bond and lived to tell about it. Now that’s a strong woman!
My latest piece is up at The Federalist, using King Kong and Godzilla to describe the human condition. Because I do that sort of thing.
I say an anti-war message doesn’t suit Kong because, especially as depicted in this film, Kong is a warrior, and really doesn’t have the option to not fight. His presence is the only thing that allows the island’s natives to live in a cartoony utopia (that, for some reason, doesn’t include smiling) and possibly prevents the rest of the world from being threatened. Godzilla was in much the same position in the previous film, as the only thing standing between humanity and destruction by the electricity-draining MUTOs.
In either case, the image is of a world that is only allowed to continue in whatever state of peace or safety it has because there’s a ferocious warrior standing guard, ready to push back the things that threaten to destroy it. “Godzilla” made this link explicit by casting soldiers as its human leads (in fact, “Godzilla “was the closest thing to a pro-war, or at least pro-warrior, movie I’ve seen in a long time), while “Kong” has its chief human warrior character as an Ahab-like antagonist.
The good news is that “Kong” has more than enough sheer creativity and enthusiasm for the material that makes it worth sitting through tired anti-Vietnam agitprop. Also, the medium undermines the would-be message. The very nature of a kaiju film like this forbids any kind of triumphant humanism. In a world where monsters the size of buildings stand guard against creatures that can shut down a city with a single move, there really is no room to hope that mankind has the wherewithal to end the perennial ills of the human condition.