Who among us is so tired at heart, so bereft of purpose, so bored with life, that we would not want to risk our lives shooting at enormous monsters with high-powered guns? Not me, for sure, and I’m sure you feel the same way. This vicarious pleasure is certainly part of the appeal of watching the giant-monster films that began with King Kong in 1933, and that really got going in the 1950s with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, and Godzilla.
I began watching these films as a young boy; as a boy, because of these iconic works, I felt that all that I needed to speed up my passage to manhood was a rampaging tyrannosaurus rex, and a bazooka. Fortunately, manhood eventually came to me through other means. Other boys, however, have grown up to make movies – in a handful of cases, to remake the favorite monster movies of their youths into multi-million dollar blockbusters.
Unfortunately, we’ve found that there are few films more disappointing than blockbuster remakes of modestly-budgeted originals. The 2010 Wolf Man doesn’t hold a candle to the 1941 original, the 2005 King Kong, like all Peter Jackson films, seems to go on forever, and although the makers of the 2014 Godzilla doubtless revere the 1954 original, their efforts will certainly never replace it as an iconic work that resonates for its time, and afterwards. What is needed is not to remake these now-classic stories, but to reconstruct them, to create something original out of them, that will force their familiar narratives into new and unexpected shapes.
As it stands, the formula of blockbuster remakes is to amplify the most spectacular effects of the originals. Everything gets bigger and noisier. If Kong fights a tyrannosaurus in 1933, he fights three at once in 2005; if we have one werewolf in 1941, we get two in 2010; if Godzilla is 50 meters high in 1954, he towers a hundred meters in 2014.
The formula might be seen continuing with Kong: Skull Island, where Kong is as tall as a skyscraper and easily swats combat helicopters out of the sky (as in Pacific Rim, fighter pilots are inexplicably dense when it comes to staying outside the swatting distance of giant monsters). The film, however, is so cheeky and ambitious that it actually succeeds in taking the Godzilla franchise (which more or less by accident, has included Kong since 1962) someplace new and exciting.
On behalf of Kong: Skull Island, one can say that at least its creators (director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and John Gatins) show some sensitivity to the “giant monster” genre’s literary antecedent, the 19th century genre of “travelers’ tales.” Starting in the 1860s, accounts such as Paul du Chaillu’s, of searching African jungles for the legendary gorilla, became best-sellers. The “undiscovered species” aspect of the genre was usually accompanied by sensational exaggerations of the size and savagery of these mysterious creatures – because they were so shy and elusive, very little was known of the African gorilla even by Africans who shared their habitat, but Western explorers’ first accounts were of vicious, woman-kidnapping monsters of enormous size.
Similarly, the first discovery of the Komodo dragon in 1910 led immediately to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World in 1912, the year that the “travelers’ tales” genre really peaked with the publication of Tarzan of the Apes (Tarzan of course was not only raised by intelligent, gorilla-like Great Apes, but soon encountered dinosaurs in the lost land of Pal-Ul-Don). Central to this genre was the reinforcement of a dichotomy between the reasonable and technologically-enhanced white man, and a dark and savage “other” that could be either human or animal.
Let us not forget how much this genre affected the 1954 Godzilla, who of course is not a product of radiation, but an ancient super-dinosaur who has been raised from the depths by atomic testing. In the original Gojira, the sagelike Dr. Yamane suggests (what the film’s sequels will confirm) that there are more like Godzilla: “The earth has many deep pockets, abyssal regions that contain secrets we have yet to discover.”
Deep pockets, abyssal regions. “Popular” or “genre” literature aside (the quotes indicate I am not comfortable with either term), the most iconic of fictional travelers’ tales, written as the genre was approaching its peak, is Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, in which the protagonist Marlow journeys far up an African river to find the missing Kurtz, who has succumbed to his surroundings to become a dark and savage “other.”
The novella’s influence was strong in Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now (1979, with Marlon Brando as Kurtz), and it is, if anything, overstated in Kong: Skull Island, which not only unfolds like Apocalypse Now meets King Kong, but has central characters named Conrad and Marlow.
Once introducing us with a credits montage that, like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, lets us know we are entering an alternate history of 20th-century military campaigns against giant monsters, Kong: Skull Island delights with, among other things, its color sense. The red walls and avocado phones of the US Senate building would have never been admitted into the oppressive greyness and drab characters of the 2014 Godzilla, but Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong indulge in them; delightfully, unlike Gareth Edwards, Vogt-Roberts seems to think that his audience want to enjoy themselves.
Bright colors! Fist Fights! Jokes! Not to mention characters who seem, just like real people, to be fighting to hang on to their sanity, whether they be Tom Hiddleston’s mercenary, Samuel L. Jackson’s squad leader, or John C. Reilly’s downed WWII fighter pilot (the film is set in 1973, so he has been on Skull Island almost 30 years).
Kong: Skull Island starts to flesh out the sketchy mythology that Godzilla introduced in 2014. The scenario, in fact, is not dissimilar to the Cthulhu Mythos of the American author H.P. Lovecraft (“The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” are fantastic extensions of the travelers’ tales genre), where a handful of surviving horrors also scheme to restore a race of monsters (in Lovecraft’s case, the extraterrestrial Great Old Ones) to earthly dominance.
In Skull Island, and presumably the sequels to come, Kong, like Godzilla, is one of many gigantic pre-prehistoric species that once dominated the earth. These species, called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) are mostly still confined to vast underground caverns, but they are looking for their chance to re-emerge. Kong, not being actively hostile to humanity as long as he’s left alone, stands as a vitally important sentry against a monster apocalypse.
Stunning visuals, not only in the color design but in the special effects and scenery, virtuoso acting, and clever writing save Kong: Skull Island from being another blockbuster disappointment. By the end, we have a sense that something vast is in the making.
Not just the army-versus-monsters narratives – beloved by kids, a bit tiresome to adults – but the Kong/kaiju universe reconfigured into a MUTOS-versus-humanity standoff that could propel these familiar archetypes into a sort of cinematic ecstasy of Lovecraftian otherness. If we’re lucky, it might turn out to be pretty good.
David Neil Lee lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where his Lovecraftian YA novel The Midnight Games won the city arts council’s 2015 Kerry Schooley Award for the book that “best conveys the spirit of Hamilton.” He has recently completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Guelph, and is working on a Midnight Games sequel, and other books. davidneillee.com.