Of all the big movie genres Hollywood has utilized to show off its state-of-the-art special effects, the giant-monster picture has been the most woefully underrepresented. Hopefully that will change with the impending release of Guillermo del Toro's Kaiju vs. robot extravaganza Pacific Rim. In the buildup to that event, we'll look at some of the few English-language Kaiju films we do have in an effort to ascertain how they live up to the genre and how they differ.
Previously: Godzilla (1998), Cloverfield
Part Three: King Kong (2005)
As noted during last week's entry, the genesis of Cloverfield came when J.J. Abrams realized America lacked a giant monster to call its own. A real monster, not a cute and cuddly one like King Kong.
That right there pinpoints Kong's great gift and great curse. Premiering in 1933, decades before the first Godzilla film, Kong may be the preeminent Kaiju, and yet we often forget his inclusion in the ranks of such monsters, partly because he's an almost exclusively American entity, but mostly because he's just so darn adorable.
Kong is the monster with pathos. Even in the Japanese version of the character found in King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes or the unofficial Hong Kong knockoff found in The Mighty Peking Man, we can see Kong thinking, feeling and reacting in ways other monsters do not. While certainly a destructive force, King Kong's attacks are largely motivated by human callousness and greed, and of course, love. As a giant gorilla, we are able to see ourselves mirrored in Kong in a way never possible with Godzilla. Even the kind and gentle Mothra keeps us at a distance emotionally thanks to her inexpressive, unfamiliar face. We can watch tanks fire thousands of missiles into Godzilla without batting an eye, but the sight of regular little bullets hitting King Kong is abject and painful.
As one of the original King Kong's most fervent fans, director Peter Jackson was able use his Lord of the Rings clout to make his dreams come true by remaking King Kong both as a Superman Returns-like ode to the original and as a state-of-the-art giant-monster film.
It is that two-pronged approach which makes Peter Jackson's King Kong a very confusing piece of Kaiju cinema. Jackson clearly has love for the genre, and Kong's scenes of pure, unadulterated action are beautiful indeed. There is nothing quite like the glee of watching Kong destroy a theater or pick up and toss away beautiful blondes in search for his love Ann Darrow. Kong isn't as big as Godzilla, so instead of stepping on New York, he has to settle for tossing cars and climbing buildings and stuff like that. But it's fun and most of the effect work still looks incredible.
And that's just the New York climax. The film's extended stay on Skull Island is like an endless creature feature. Kong's fight with not one but two T. rex-like dinosaurs is the stuff Kaiju dreams are made of. Jackson's update of the infamous deleted "Spider Pit" scene from the original supplies the film with an icky, mini horror film filled with fun, nasty creatures.
Had Peter Jackson focused solely on creating a Kong-sized thrill ride, his King Kong would probably still be a fan favorite. But like the film's ambitious director Carl Denham, he ends up sinking his own ship with illusions of grandeur.
Jackson makes the mistake of trying to turn the King Kong story into something of a prestige picture. In his efforts to do the original Kong justice and produce a truly epic version of the story, Jackson ends up turning an inherently B-level story into an A-level epic drama that runs twice as long as most other giant-monster films.
We always have to sit through some boring human stuff when it comes to Kaiju, but King Kong has an entire feature film's worth of boring human stuff, none of which ultimately adds up to anything more than an illustration of Jackson's own self-indulgence. It's one thing to wait 30 minutes for some great monster action. Waiting an hour is something else entirely. Waiting an hour amongst goofy 1930s caricatures is a downright cruelty.
Jackson also makes the mistake of siding with Kong without any ambiguity. Though beastly and potentially vicious, Kong is undoubtably a beautiful creature, and Jackson spends much more time convincing us of this than he does trying to scare us. Watching Kong accidentally ice-skate is adorable and precious, but it also indicates this film's wish to be a drama when what we really want is a monster movie.
It's hard not to love King Kong for all it gets right, but it has become a film that is watchable only in pieces. We get some great, full-on Kaiju action, but the amount of time we have to sit through to win these scenes make the film a labor to endure. The 1976 Kong had this problem too, but even it was just barely over two hours long (and, for all the derision that film has earned, it has some of the best man-in-suit Kaiju filmmaking I have ever seen).
The dramatic elements of Kong's story are apparently too tempting for understatement here in America. They do it much better overseas, where Kong is a far uglier creature whose emotions don't get so much in the way of his violence and where a B movie has no chance or opportunity to grow too ponderous for its own good. Jackson's version contains tons of great moments, but they are hard to find and barely worth the effort.
Next week: Monsters