Picture the scene: a 100ft gorilla who is the last of his kind goes up against a 350ft lizard who can’t jump or anything but can roar really, really loud! Wait three years, and this delirious fantasy concocted by kids with toys will be coming to a cinema near you. After Godzilla (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017) the two most famous creatures in cinema are going to battle it out to be king of… well, wherever they fancy. No-one is going to stop them.
That introduction may leave you somewhat unconvinced, but there are real reasons to be excited for a venture like this. For a start, both of these beings were first thought out as responses to major concerns of their times. They also remain the stand-out ventures in the chronology of films affectionately known as ‘creature features’.
The only problem with that label is how broad it is. It accounts for Universal Monsters movies like Frankenstein (1931), Roger Corman B-Movies such as The Terror! (1963), RKO pictures such as King Kong (1933) and the Japanese kaiju movies, famously Godzilla (1954). These last two are the two most affectionately identified as creature features – and there are very good reasons for this.
Take King Kong. This giant ape with anger issues was far more than a whimsical product of a fantastic imagination. Rather, it touched on a subject which sadly blights the world more than 80 years after this ground-breaking film: racism.
The film’s directors, Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, were adamant that there were no racial undertones to their film. But it seems impossible to ignore them now. It may have been the 1930s, but the stinging influence of colonialism could still be felt in society. Taken in a boat to America against his will and displayed in chains: the parallels between King Kong and American slavery are glaringly obvious, not least because of the racist depiction of black people as ape-like that had long existed in the American consciousness.
This Kong-racism allegory is articulated perfectly in a scene from Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds. And, yet, there is still disagreement as to whether the original 1933 film is an allegorical critique of America’s colonial past or a racist portrayal of African Americans.
On one hand, Kong is a sympathetic character, more human in many ways than his captors, who themselves could be seen to come across as satirical caricatures of the greedy American colonialist. On the other hand, aspects of Kong’s portrayal are deeply problematic, not least his lust for the first white woman he encounters.
Whatever the case, Kong has managed to remain in the public consciousness for decades; the 1933 film was re-released a further five times in 23 years. Two remakes came along: one in 1976 starring Jeff Bridges, and Peter Jackson’s well-received 2005 entry. Now, we have the modern reboot, with a Kong around four times larger than any that have come before him. Sadly, it seems that the meaningfulness behind this incredible creation has been lost over time, as special effects and A-list casting has taken precedence over social issues.
The same cannot be said of Godzilla, an expression of the stinging legacy that the atomic bombs had left on Japan’s national consciousness. If you watch the 1954 original, you are struck by the slow pacing which precedes Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo, reducing it to ashes and obliterating anything in its path. And yet the characters talk of him as a deity.
This starkly contrasts with how characters talked about Kong. The impression is that Godzilla is bringing justice and punishment for the atrocities Japan committed in the war – a controversial but understandable interpretation of this story.
This led critic Owen Gleiberman, from Entertainment Weekly, to say that “Godzilla is pop culture’s grandest symbol of nuclear apocalypse.” While his serious thematic aspects waned over the course of many sequels and re-makes, Godzilla himself remains littered with social undertones. After 1984, when the major threats of a new nuclear apocalypse had dissipated, Godzilla came to be recognised as a way for Japan to remember its difficult Imperial history.
The historical significance of Godzilla has not been forgotten. When your giant lizard has his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame (albeit a badly undersized one, given the monster concerned), it is a job well done.
In the 2014 reboot, director Gareth Edwards was careful to allude to the nuclear legacy and continue to refer to Godzilla as some kind of god. This newer film remembers the meaningfulness of its original, and adds a contemporary spin to it. The moment where the power plant collapses is a powerful reminder of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011.
This all makes sense. What better way to portray earthly monstrosity than with monsters? It can be racism or the horrors of nuclear apocalypse; giant creatures are the greatest way to communicate important messages in a way which will still entertain and enthral the audience.
Other creature features continue to pull the same stunt. Trollhunter (2011) was a commentary about the state of social affairs in Norway, and the conflicts which arise over the use of land and religious belief. Whenever you go to the cinema and watch giant monsters roaring and ripping things apart, it pays to dig below the surface. This was done especially well in King Kong and Godzilla, offering an explanation for why they have stayed with us.
When Kong and Godzilla stick on their boxing gloves in three years’ time, the hope is there that it turns out to be more than a money-making gimmick. Yes, the audience will expect incredible visuals, a great cast and the odd death or two hundred, but audiences also feed off meaningful stories and important issues that movies raise. Films can be intellectual stimulants, and blockbusters like this are in the best position to do this well. A punch-up between a monkey and a lizard is all well and good, but issues like race and nuclear annihilation carry incredible significance and sincerity both in the past and in today’s world.
Creature features offer perfect opportunities to convey historically and culturally particular dilemmas and uncertainties. The monsters could be gorillas, lizards, trolls, spiders, the re-animated dead or whatever – anything that can eat people works best. They have the power to be deeply reflective and meaningful looks at the world that will come to the cinema to see them.