Later this month, the earth is going to quake as cinema’s two biggest (and oldest) titans starting punching each other’s lights out in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong. Like other “vs” movies of this stature, this represents not one epic cinematic event but two. Though these particular versions of these characters are relatively new, both have decades (almost a century in Kong’s case) of iconography behind them that can be intimidating to viewers who don’t know their history, but don’t want to feel lost as they pummel each other.
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is King Kong’s story is fairly simple and won’t take long to get through. The bad news is Godzilla. Not only has he appeared in dozens of films – with multiple narrative reboots – over the last half-century, but he is also the one most likely to stop your city and raise your insurance premiums. He’s just bad news incarnate.
But we’ll get to all that. Let’s start simple with Kong…
The Eighth Wonder of the World
King Kong is a giant ape who lives on a remote island shaped like a skull filled with tons of other horrific monsters. The famous story of Kong – originated in 1933’s King Kong and retold several times since – involves a down on his luck filmmaker who charters a boat to a mysterious island filled with amazing undiscovered wild creatures to shoot the movie that will make his career. Under the guise of straight-up dishonesty, he cobbles together a crew and a desperate actress and gets them all to this place filled with horrors where most of them die.
The island also has a native population who worship Kong and sacrifice ladies to him. They want to sacrifice the actress, but the crew is like “screw that.” These folks abduct her and offer her up to Kong anyway. The mighty Kong arrives and steals the actress. The crew is like “screw that” and they go to rescue her. Despite being woefully unequipped to traverse the dangers of Skull Island, some of them manage. Then the filmmaker drugs Kong and takes him back to New York to be a sideshow. He wakes up, says “screw this,” grabs the girl again, climbs atop the Empire State Building and gets shot to death.
Kong is special for a lot of reasons. Even way back in 1933 (which, as you can probably already tell from this synopsis, was far from a woke era), they knew to make him a figure of pathos rather than abject terror. Kong is scary, to be sure. But he falls in love with the actress, and rather than murder her, strives to protect her from the dangers of Skull Island. Kong didn’t stomp into New York City looking to make trouble. A super jerk enslaved and exploited him. Furthermore, Kong earns the title of “King” by being the most feared figure on an island teeming with monsters that would otherwise star in their own horror films. So in addition to emotional resonance, Kong wins the audience’s respect for being a top-tier badass. We feel for Kong and see his eventual death as tragic.
Kong’s cinematic journey is short. You basically have the prime story told three times – two of which have wacky sequels – a couple Japanese swings at it from Toho, and the new Legendary film. If you’re going to get primed for Godzilla vs. Kong, the essential watchlist writes itself.
King Kong (1933)
I feel like even people who profess impatience with old films will still enjoy the original King Kong, which is a straight-up masterpiece in every way…save for political correctness, which, yikes.
The only modern drawback to Kong is the amount of time it takes to get the characters to Skull Island (though that’s nothing compared to the Peter Jackson version). Once Kong shows up, however, this movie is a rocket that never slows down. It’s a mean and violent film. Kong is not screwing around but neither are the other creatures on Skull Island. The groundbreaking stop-motion special effects are obviously from a different era, but they seem to only gain potency over time. Watching Kong move is both fascinating and hypnotizing, and something every film fan should see.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
And then there is this. Toho’s version of Kong is a man in a suit, retaining none of Kong’s former majesty. Instead, he is sort of a raggedy monkey person. Nevertheless, the film is a lot of cheesy fun, and if you’re going to watch the new version, you might as well take a look at how far we’ve come. As for the fight, Godzilla clearly has the upper hand until Kong gets struck by lightning, which amazingly enough gives him more power. We get to see him swing Godzilla by his tail and shove a tree into Godzilla’s mouth, so it’s not like I’m saying this movie isn’t good. If you like this version of Kong, you can also catch up on King Kong Escapes, which even has a Metal Kong.
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