US cinema has brought together the two greatest behemoths in film history: Godzilla and King Kong. [Godzilla vs Kong on HBO Max, 26 March.] They have appropriated more than a monster.
It is a movie about a plague of monsters, in a time of plague itself. Godzilla vs. Kong, helmed by director Adam Wingard, is the final part of a so-called “Monsterverse”, its release date has changed more frequently than the COVID restrictions.
Promising the instant carbohydrate that CGI-driven audiences crave, it will show around the world and via HBO Max. Underlying the movie though, are two very different cultural relationships with these monsters that filmmakers have already ignored to their peril.
The original King Kong appeared in 1933 and yielded just 11 further movies in 88 years. Godzilla followed in 1954. Japan’s mutant lizard has been more prolific with 37 films in its 67 years. In fact, Godzilla is a more established icon in America than Kong. He even has his own suffix.
There is a reason why Godzilla has become the more powerful symbol and it is not attributable to special effects. Superior social relevance and symbolism separate the franchises. It should, but most probably won’t, have a bearing on the last instalment’s outcome.
An uncomfortable reality for those who dismiss this series as children’s material is the underlying seriousness with which Japanese audiences regard them.
The other factor at play may also be a lingering sense of plagiarism, some having cited Godzilla as a lift of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, another nuclear-bred dinosaur mutation. The original Gojira, however, was highly professional and is afforded near art-house status, so well-honed was its allegorical narrative of nuclear destruction.
Coming just a dozen years after Pearl Harbour, and fewer since Hiroshima, Godzilla was cast as a product of what we have done to ourselves: let things get out of control. Godzilla is a form of retribution by nature; a walking tsunami. The nuclear elements and Japanese sentiment about America was excised from the US version of the movie to such an extent that William Tsutsui, professor of history at the University of Kansas, wrote in his book, Godzilla on My Mind, that, “The American Godzilla does nothing to jar the … average movie-goer’s entertainment experience with unwanted demands of self-reflection or intellectual engagement.”
Taken out of its own habitat and ecosystem for human pleasure, Kong is a creature capable of more meaningful interaction with humanity, and which, through our agency, meets a tragic end. It is an animal welfare and conservationism tale writ large.
Kong is the known, the knowable; a reflection of what we do to our earth, the sum of our mistreatment. Godzilla is the unknowable, the visitation of our sins, the punishment for our failure. One must die for us to understand ourselves. One is beyond stopping and serves as a warning.
The physical properties of the original characters were vastly different, Godzilla being many times bigger and stronger. While Kong was shot down by bullets atop the Empire State Building, Godzilla was basically indestructible; there is no structure he can climb that won’t collapse beneath him. Like a mudslide or a flood, his destruction is amoral.
Rather than confront or utilise this difference, Wingard and Legendary, as Universal did in the only other meeting of the two in 1963, have simply upscaled Kong and done away with differentiators.
With its empathy for humanity, Kong draws a tear when he dies. The love between a monkey and model cannot repeat itself with a 400-foot radioactive lizard with whom there is no reasoning. We do not cry for Godzilla: we should cry for ourselves and for what we did to deserve him.
The most recent Japanese instalment, Shin Godzilla (known as Godzilla Resurrected to Western audiences) internationalises the dilemma by using pressure from the US on the Japanese to contain the creature by the use of nuclear weaponry, one of several dark ironies enjoyed by a more sophisticated domestic audience.
The indestructibility and magnitude of Godzilla allow this scale of drama but also has domestic parallels; for instance, in whether it might be necessary to shoot down an airliner full of passengers which has been hijacked and is being flown to the Pentagon.
Godzilla represents the balance between humankind and nature. His purpose is to re-impose on us our lost humility. Kong is simply a large-scale lab monkey.
The American track record on misunderstanding this subtext was plunged to a new low by Roland Emmerich in 1998, who re-cast it along Jurassic Park lines, resulting in a movie that even now is reviled by audiences who usually embrace this genre. Among myriad faults, Emmerich simply had the air force shoot Godzilla dead.
While the Japanese have, occasionally, killed off Godzilla, they do so only when he is cast as hostile. He is lured into a volcano, or cryogenically frozen. It cannot be done conventionally. You don’t stop a tornado with a Tommy gun.
Wingard’s take on the epic clash between the two titans comes to theatres in March.
Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version succeeded. But in a shrunken head warning to Wingard, the middle movie Godzilla, King of the Monsters, by Michael Dougherty, overloading with Kaiju content, barely broke even. The plot, in a monster movie, is the major challenge, not CGI.
What Dougherty did do, building on Edwards’ work, and as many of the Japanese movies did before them, was establish a more sympathetic Godzilla.
To the Japanese, and for Edwards, Godzilla lies between mankind and potential extinction. This ironic humanisation, casting Godzilla as half-threat, half-saviour, works up to a point. But now, Kong and Godzilla are occupying similar emotional territory. Who are we rooting for, and why?
Confusingly, for battle, Kong must be super-sized and meaner, further subverting their traditional roles. Changing the nature of the combatants removes part of their central fascination. CGI will bring in the money – 1963’s King Kong v Godzilla was comfortably the franchise’s most successful instalment – but achieving that elusive emotional and critical success will be harder.
Godzilla saving Kong would be the ideal resolution, capitalising on the underlying audience sentiment; since 1933, audiences have always wanted Kong to be saved. But don’t bet on it.
Wingard’s movie is marketed with the strapline: One must fall! We must hope Wingard and Legendary have understood the cultural drivers well enough to ensure that the real battle isn’t between ratings and credibility.
All images but Godzilla in Tokyo courtesy of Legendary Entertainment.
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