Monsterverse: The characters of Godzilla and King Kong have long been cultural touchstones for moviegoers the world over. Kong debuted in 1933’s King Kong and has been sequel-ed, remade, parodied, and referenced over and over again in cinema and on TV. Godzilla first appeared in Japan in Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954) and has since appeared in more than 30 movies. Like Kong, Godzilla is a character who one doesn’t have to see in a film to recognize or reference. In the nearly 60 years since his creation, he has become iconic.
Because shared universes are the “in” thing right now, and with every studio wanting a piece of that proven lucrative pie, Legendary has decided that owning the rights to both Godzilla and Kong means we’ll be seeing Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. The two titans have fought in the past in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, a movie with a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes and one in which Bosley Crowther called a “ridiculous melodrama” offering “nothing more than a couple of dressed-up stunt men throwing cardboard rocks at each other”.
While these two iconic characters have always been held up as the bastions of monster movies and are now set on an unavoidable collision course with one another, their most recent American depictions are vastly different in execution and tone. This has led many to speculate how the upcoming head-to-head film will be able to pull of the combination. After all, Godzilla has been the subverter of monster and disaster movie tropes, while Kong has enthusiastically embraced them.
Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla (2014) are both divisive movies, each helmed by directors whose breakthroughs were made in low-budget indies before hitting the big leagues. Strangely, in many cases, viewers who loved one disliked the other, perhaps because the two are very different in terms of scale, scope, and technique.
Godzilla: “Patience” is a descriptor often assigned to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. This is a slow film that is never boring but brings the fireworks at its own pace. We don’t see Godzilla for an hour of the runtime (and only for eight minutes total). Compare this with Kong: Skull Island, where we meet Kong very quickly and violently and he looms over multiple scenes thereafter. Edwards’ Godzilla makes you wait, and as a result, Godzilla never becomes passé. Due to his scarcity, it is a huge event each time he Godzilla appears. For some viewers, this was frustrating, as they paid to see a movie called Godzilla about Godzilla, and yet they barely saw Godzilla. It’s probably not a coincidence that the main character in Godzilla shares a surname with the main character in Jaws, a movie in which the titular monster is infrequently onscreen.
A trope of monster/disaster movies dating all the way back to the dawn of cinema was the romance between the lead (traditionally, a male) and someone he saved, worked with, or was at or at odds with. This romance-under-pressure trope could actually be applied to most genres of movies and is one we’ve seen die off in recent years, as more movies (i.e. Pacific Rim) find their male and female characters able to finish the movie as allies rather than snogging as the credits roll. Godzilla subverts it by having the lead, Ford Brody, be happily married with a young son. This helps enormously with his characterization. Ford may not be the most dynamic lead but his motivation of getting home to his family is one with which it is easy to empathize.
In that sense, Ford is the perfect lead. Though he is a soldier, he is essentially an Everyman. He has no mysterious past and—bucking another trope—he isn’t trying to redeem himself for something he did. He’s just a guy who happens to be a soldier and who gets caught up in something huge because he tries to do the right thing by his father. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal has its critics but it is a meat and potatoes performance with few quirks that is watchable and relatable.
This depiction of base humanity, surprisingly, also extends to the monster fights. During the Godzilla-MUTO fights, Director Gareth Edwards is careful to keep a human element in the frame at all times, whether with onlookers, fleeing bystanders, or military figures. It never feels like you’re watching a video game cut-scene, because there are human beings onscreen reminding us of the true cost and scale. Contemporary blockbusters constantly prove how easy it is for movies like these to descend into pixels fighting pixels, so it is refreshing that Edwards frames the monsters as mythical creatures doing battle for and within a human audience.
All of these classic tropes being subverted made Godzilla feel like a shot of adrenaline in a dying genre. Roland Emmerich had single-handedly turned the disaster movie into a cliché factory of wild CGI, paper-thin characters, and predictable tropes. Edwards took the genre and added gravity and scale to make something that is genuinely exciting and scary while also feeling very real and human.
Kong: In contrast, Kong: Skull Island feels much more loyal towards the monster/adventure movie genre than the monster/disaster movie genre. Kong: Skull Island owes more to 1930s adventure serials than 1940s footage of London being bombed by the Germans. Throughout, the movie goes for spectacle over atmosphere, perhaps with the exception of a bone yard sequence which shows that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts can bring the scary if he wants to (alas, this is slightly undercut by the out-of-place scene that riffs on 300 with a gas-masked Tom Hiddleston
chopping up monster birds in both slow and fast motion).
Tonally, the movie goes more for the supernatural with its gorgeous island setting surrounded by storms and filled with exotic oddities. Godzilla destruction being unleashed upon cities could lend to a grim effect while Kong’s Australian and Hawaiian filming locations render lush jungles, staggering mountain ranges, and a setting that we’re not used to seeing every day on our urban commute to work. This setting and the isolated nature of the island means that Vogt-Roberts also populates the screen with all manner of creatures. If Godzilla owes a debt to Jaws, then Kong: Skull Island would be more indebted to Jurassic Park or even Aliens, with its soldiers-facing-off-against-unknown-predators plotline. But unlike those two movies though, Kong: Skull Island sometimes feels as though the filmmakers designed its monsters so well, that they ran out of time to give the same treatment to its characters.
Kong‘s struggle with character development renders much of its dialogue as exposition. Godzilla also had a lot of exposition, but the key difference is in each film’s delivery. With Kong the exposition felt like exposition. Conversations were unnaturally full of information that was solely for the viewer and not the characters. The mishandling is exacerbated by the characters being “types” instead of people. Each was given a single feature or occupation and left bare beyond that distinctive mark. Of course, this is nothing new for an adventure movie, as usually the lion’s share of the characters are simply going to the island to end up in some creature’s belly, so really there’s no need to know about the life they’ve left on the mainland. The problem with Kong: Skull Island is that there was no central character for us to follow. If Tom Hiddleston is read as the main character, then we need more from him than simply being good looking and a tracker. The movie tries to give him some sort of backstory later by having him tell a brief story about his father going to war but it never comes to anything. In Godzilla, we open with the defining moment in Ford’s life as his mother dies in an event that drives his father away from him. Every thing that happens in the movie might be basic and exposition driven, but it stems from this moment and informs Ford’s character throughout. It is also an incredibly emotive and action-packed opening that provides more of an emotional sting than anything we see in Kong: Skull Island.
Kong: Skull Island is still a very fun movie, but only really when there is action happening. Slow scenes with characters talking and explaining things to each other land as dull and unengaging, but when soldiers fight monsters or Kong fights everyone, we see Vogt-Roberts has a great eye for shots and spectacle.
Godzilla and Kong: Both movies are visually astounding and well-directed. A minority of audiences love both movies and a lot of conversation has been has been given over to how problems with one are fixed by the other. Many of the complaints about Godzilla were center on it being frugal to a fault in its actual showing of the monster, so for those viewers, the feast of Kong we get in Kong: Skull Island is the antidote. On the other hand those who weren’t keen on Kong: Skull Island’s sometimes silly tone found a lot to love in the more straight-faced Godzilla. Either way, there exists a strange gap between these two movies. So, how do you make a movie featuring both characters that satisfies both divided audiences and the outliers and the overlappers? Is it possible to make a slow, patient movie that is also full of wild, fast-paced spectacle and comic relief? Is it possible to show one monster loads and one not so much? Should Legendary adopt a course correction that sees a more Skull Island-style Godzilla sequel or a Kong film handled with Godzilla‘s pace and patience? Is the answer a third cinematic design, perhaps exploring a whole new screen storytelling trope?
I guess we’ll know more when Godzilla: King of the Monsters is released in 2019.
Featured Image: Toho
Edited to correct original release date of first Godzilla film.