What Godzilla vs. Kong Tells Us About Our Times
I am going to state for the record that I am an unabashed King Kong vs. Godzilla fan. Not because the original film came out the year I was born or that I have fond memories of going to see it with my grandma when I was a boy in the Bronx, but because it is so damn cool when two titans of the monster universe clash. No matter the reason. However the writers and filmmakers decide to get these two together is okay with me. This is why when Godzilla vs. Kong was released to great fanfare last Friday, I made it a point to sit my girls in front of our giant TV with my ridiculous sound system and watch it. And we did. And it was fucking fantastic. Silly. Cheesy. At times downright unintelligible claptrap. But when King Kong and Godzilla face off, all sins are forgiven.
I have always been fascinated by monster films. So is my daughter. I dig that about her. We have a slice of the macabre in us. She was riveted to the film. And why not? The sights and sounds of giant creatures stomping around, crashing through buildings and tossing tiny humans aside like ants, triggers something primal in us. Maybe because we’re in the smaller category of human? Maybe it’s an appetite for destruction? Who knows? One thing is for certain, these monster films, especially the ones featuring the biggies, and you get no bigger than King Kong and Godzilla, reflect a deeper framework of a world that is both joyful (beaches, sunsets, flowers, furry little creatures) and terrifying (floods, fires, storms, and large, growling creatures).
Nature vs. Civilization is always at the forefront of these creatures and their films. And they are always wildly popular. Despite hundreds of giant monster movies, many of them downright awful, the biggest stars, King Kong and Godzilla have not faced off in nearly sixty years. Most of that has no doubt to do with copyrights and lawyers, you know, human/civilization stuff, but nevertheless when they do come around, they are a hit. What does it say that with all of the content streamed our way since the pandemic hit in the spring of last year that Godzilla vs. Kong topped the list last week? Here we are, trapped by a virus, our civilization threatened by an unknown natural enemy we cannot wage war against culturally, politically, racially, added to the systemic vs. science fight on how to curtail this threat. So many factors; ideology, religion, politics, government. And here come the monsters.
Auspicious timing has been a reoccurring theme to monster films – especially the exaggerated grotesque forms of nature – a giant gorilla, who is both ancestor and imposing beast, arriving as tall as a building. Buildings, of course, being the big deal when King Kong was introduced to the world in 1933, the very height of the Great Depression. It would take more than a mere column to discuss the artistic ramifications in literature, art, film, and music that our man-made disaster did to the world, culminating in World War II, but suffice to say King Kong underlined it. It was perfect timing for a large ape to be brought against its will to the United States, fast becoming the dominant global power, to its greatest city, soon to be the world’s epicenter for progress, media, capitalism, and ingenuity, and scale its greatest edifice, the Empire State Building, erected merely two years before, only to be felled by a fleet of airplanes.
While a ship takes the fictitious film crew to Skull Island to encounter the mighty Kong in the original film, the airplane is the generational star of King Kong. Used for the first time a generation before as a special weapon of World War I, the purported war to end all wars, coupled with Charles Lindbergh’s improbable transcontinental flight only five-years gone, the airplane as both weapon and viable travel craft was relatively new. It is no coincidence that airplanes bringing Kong down resonated with 1933 audiences. The giant ape and the newest technology, battling on the biggest skyscraper on the planet in the biggest city of the biggest power around. A power brought low by stupidity and greed and the question of whether untethered capitalism, and the control of the economic environment as some kind of craps table, was viable for survival. The vengeance of the all-mighty buck as a far more imposing creature than the hairy beast with a crush on the screaming blonde woman.
Whew. A little on the nose, huh?
That is nothing compared to Godzilla.
King Kong is a film about the Great Depression, progress versus our natural past. Godzilla is a post-World War II film about the horrors of the atomic age, what humans had wrought on itself. The hydrogen bomb that laid waste to millions of Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the global massacre of billions for ideology and racism. The fears of our progress to make war, kill as many of us as possible, is in every frame of the 1954 film. And it does not hide its lineage from King Kong in its very name; Godzilla is from the word Gojira, a combination of two Japanese terms for “gorilla” and “whale”, both the fictionalized and actual largest mammals on the planet. This is not only nature come to lay claim to the planet, but the mutant ramifications of fucking with nature so badly.
This, of course, makes perfect sense in post-war Japan, a country ravaged in humiliating defeat, forced to see its holy leader felled by Western war technology and laid low by the growing dangers of the twentieth century. But Godzilla was so popular, an American version was introduced in 1956, literally challenging the legacy of King Kong with its title, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. A young Raymond Burr was added to the footage and thus the plot to put an American in the thing, a representative of our culpability in all this, harkening back to King Kong coming to die under a fuselage of airplane bullets thirteen years earlier. To be fair, it was just a Hollywood cash grab, but it was hard, as it is now, to ignore this theme. It is also quite cool to consider Godzilla and Elvis Presley showing up at the same time. Much of what came before was about to be swept away by another monster entirely.
So, it was inevitable that the two mighty franchises and its monsters should clash, and they did, in August of 1962, It was the height of the Cold War, two months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a year before the Kennedy Assassination, and the Beatles and the 1960s and all that. A Japanese film company produced it with a plot teeming with anti-corporate greed and growing fears over pharmaceuticals and nuclear realities. None of it makes any sense when considering A) Kong dies at the end of the original film – despite American exploitations for the franchise – and B) how he ends up across the globe. Nevertheless, it was a massive international hit, released in America the following year. When I saw it in the late sixties, we all assumed there would be a sequel, considering the spate of these monster films throughout my childhood on TV and elsewhere. There would be a ton of rematches to come. Alas, this was not to be.
Which brings us to 2021, and our pandemic/quarantine world, and the two titans returning to once again remind us of our self-destruction; technology and innovation over nature and humanity, our greed versus the sustaining of the planet, the unknown virus lying in wait to wipe us out. The ape from our past and the reanimated dinosaur from pre-history are products of things going terribly awry. Apparently, I would learn as we laughed and cheered and fist-pumped our way through Kong Versus Godzilla, this is a sequel of recent films, none of which I have seen. I mean, I am 58 now, and not as connected to the many universes run by giant conglomerates. But when I see these two lovable bastards about to fight, count me in.
Because that what monster movies do for us. They bring us back to our humanity by threatening it with large creatures that don’t belong, but kind of belong. They have human characterizes, they like kids, and are jealous and macho and fearful of something different moving in on their territory. All the stuff that we make and unmake.
We love monster movies. And it is no wonder at all.