“King Kong vs. Godzilla” ’63: A Critical Exchangecore

Are you pumped for “Kong vs. Godzilla” in 2020, dear reader? Featuring two slick, lifeless digital beasties destroying major cities but leaving each other virtually unscathed, just in case there’s enough interest to justify a “Kong vs. Godzilla 2?” Well fear not, for there is ANOTHER “Kong vs. Godzilla” adventure already in the can, just waiting to sate your relentless bloodlust. With the passing of original Godzilla costume performer Haruo Nakajima last month, the time felt right for some thorough reflection.

1963’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” the 90-minute American recut (and, in some places, re-dub) of original director Ishiro Honda’s 98-minute 1962 Japanese original, united two of the mid-century’s most fearsome critters, in the third film for each monster (also the first in color both). Whereas the 1933 “King Kong” and its cheapie followup “Son of Kong” employed gorgeous stop-motion model animation, “King Kong vs Godzilla” elected to stuff an actor into a gorilla suit and throw him out onto their miniaturized sets to do battle with OG Godzilla Harao Nakajima. The biggest tonal element “King Kong vs. Godzilla” retained from the original “Kong” was its severe racism.

Emily Nuncio Schick and Alex Kirschenbaum sat through one of the longest 90-minute movies of all time so you wouldn’t have to. Their thoughts are below.

Alex: I took copious notes because some of the plotting comes at you hard and fast. Structurally, “King Kong vs. Godzilla” just comprises a rotating cast of news reporters doing wrap-arounds and then Godzilla/Kong/a giant octopus attacking people and cities. It took me one week to finish watching this 90-minute movie. Not gonna lie, it’s a rough watch outside of the creature fights. The critter battles are pretty fun, though, but they comprise maybe 20 minutes total of the 90-minute slog.

This was one of the two longest 90-minute movies I have ever seen, along with the 2006 Milla Jovovich non-classic “Ultraviolet,” which, cool side-note, I had to watch a few weeks ago ahead of a How Did This Get Made podcast taping I scoped in Hollywood (dope podcast, by the way, everyone should listen to it). That movie ran 88 minutes and it took me four hours to watch because Jesus fucking Christ.

But I digress. The gist of the Americanized edition’s plot: The UN submarine Seahawk, while exploring an iceberg in the Arctic Sea, finds a 68-degree heat signal therein. This is Godzilla, trapped in ice. He thaws, then travels in a straight line on a pre-determined course towards the offshore islands of Japan and begins terrorizing the country. Meanwhile, a Tokyo news team commissions an expedition to the mysterious Faro Island, the movie’s substitute for what’s traditionally called Skull Island in the King Kong mythos. The native population of Faro Island is portrayed in the movie by Japanese actors in apparent blackface. Not a stellar moment. Anyway, the news station bigwigs want their anchors to find the rumored non-Godzilla monster on Faro Island, whether or not it actually exists, to bolster ratings. Essentially, then, this mash-up movie, the third in both the “Godzilla” and “King Kong” movies, is a soft franchise reboot. In the context of the film, the events of the prior movies have never transpired. Once the news team discovers that Faro Island contains its very own beast, King Kong, they decide to bring him back to Tokyo, drugged on locally-derived berry juice. From there, Kong and Godzilla parade around the countryside, and occasionally combat each other, while the human characters’ vanilla exploits bore the viewer to tears.

Another big note — King Kong in the original 1933 “King Kong” was maybe 20-30 feet tall (he had to climb up the Empire State Building), but in this he’s Godzilla-height, at least 100 feet tall, to make things even, towering over every single building he encounters. I guess for production company Toho, size did matter.

Emily: So, besides a profound lack of continuity regarding: Kong’s size (how is he foot-for-foot almost as tall as Godzilla when they’re next to each other, then somehow relatively proportionate to a human being when drinking from the pots of berry juice on Faro Island?); the MOST awkward pseudo-newscast wrap-around things that attempt to give context for this absurd plot (similar to the fourth-wall-breakage convention, but with terrible execution); overt racism (“these ignorant, primitive natives don’t know any better!” is one choice line); cringe-worthy, inconsistent dubbing…this movie was vaguely entertaining. I’m hesitant to say it was decent, because it just wasn’t. While it took Alex a week to get through King Kong vs. Godzilla, it took me a whopping three weeks. I shut down almost completely after the first five minutes, and it was a major struggle from there.

The movie tries and fails multiple times to build intrigue, via a few weak tools. One is the “Chekhov’s gun” of narcotic berries that are draw our lead players to Faro Island and subsequently cause Kong to fall asleep at convenient times. This is the kind of plot device I might have used in a play for a seventh-grade writing assignment. The “action” scenes are somehow incredibly dull, as Alex mentioned, and I wondered if the dead space that pervades so many of them is due to the relatively primitive film technology, but then I realized that so many films preceding this one had done it right. Then there’s the overacting–particularly from the geeky, Kong-obsessed Mr. Tako (Ichirō Arishima), and at times it is so painful to watch that you just have to laugh, mostly out of nervousness/embarrassment for him.

Alex: It doesn’t help that they gloss over Tako’s motivation for about two seconds at the beginning of his introduction, and then he pops up randomly throughout. All of the human characters are so loosely sketched out that it becomes a chore to sit through their exploits, in between monster fights. If the movie had just been newscasters reporting on the various beastie match-ups like they were ringside boxing commentators, I would have been way more engaged.

It feels like the heavily chopped-and-screwed American edit of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” this version that we watched, didn’t trust the original human material (or their own dubbing skills which, admittedly, are bad), so they peppered in some new American characters, reduced the footage of the Japanese actors to sap them of any utility beyond light exposition, and basically butchered any sort of flow the story might have had.

What our dear reader really cares about, though, is just getting a power ranking of the only good parts of this movie — the fights. Here you go:

1. Kong vs. A Giant Octopus
2. Kong vs. Godzilla II
3. Kong vs. Godzilla I

Kong vs. A Giant Octopus

So about thirty minutes into the proceedings, a giant octopus attacks the native inhabitants of Faro Island, coveting the natives’ berry juice (apparently).

Emily: I’m sure that octopus had a rough life under the sea and just needed a break from it all. You don’t know ’bout that octopus life!! Don’t judge!

Alex: A salient point. Really, I suppose we could all use some good berry juice in our own lives, octopus or not, from time to time.

But anyway, back to the octopus conflict. Two heroic news reporters, some of our dull, pseudo-comic relief protagonists, help defend the villagers. The octopus looks to be a combination of a taxidermy’d real octopus puppeteered in stop-motion animation after its death, a real octopus traipsing around a miniature village set, and some oversized puppet limbs tossed at the cast. It’s actually all pretty effective. Okay, honestly, it’s my favorite critter in the show.

King Kong appears for the first time here to protect the villagers against the savage eight-armed beast. He breaks down an unconvincing papier mache wall that had been keeping him out of the natives’ village, only to get immediately face-hugged by the massive ‘pus. Then Kong pries himself loose, the octopus hisses at him, and Kong finally tosses a bevy of rocks at the creature as it slinks away. Like he did in the OG “King Kong,” Kong beats his chest victoriously after the aquatic beastie has retreated. Kong then takes a few victory shots of the Faro Island natives’ berry juice… which turn out to be a few shots too many. Kong knocks himself out cold, which allows our heroes to transport him to the Japanese mainland.

Kong vs. Godzilla I

The first Kong-Godzilla battle is notable only for its confounding brevity. Also, from a sheer match-up standpoint, it feels like the Batman-Superman fight in last year’s irredeemably dumb “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” all over again. Clearly, Godzilla, the 97-100 million year-old radioactive dinosaur with an extra limb on offense (his massive tail), PLUS the ability to breathe fire, should be the heavy gambling favorite. Kong, who really has no answer for Godzilla, departs the scene of the initial face-off in cowardly retreat after chucking a few fake-looking rocks at the ancient lizard. So that’s the first Kong-Godzilla encounter, 55 minutes into the proceedings. For a movie called “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” the flick sure takes its sweet time getting to the main event. This was the only fight that qualifies as a massive let-down.

Emily: I felt sympathy for Kong in this, because after getting burned in the pecs by Godzilla, he was like, “Nahhhh, I’m good,” and bounced. He didn’t even arrive consensually! Why would he go in for the humans who tied him down to a damn raft after he got too faded to process what was happening? Total violation right there.

Alex: Fair enough. He’s probably just sobering up as the rocks start hitting him. Rude awakening right there for surecore.

Kong vs. Godzilla II

This of course is the movie’s climax. After Godzilla’s thorough decimation of Tokyo, the army decides that their only hope of surviving Godzilla (short of an atomic bomb, which they don’t want to use) is pitting King Kong (who has been defeated with his biggest weakness, Faro Island berry juice) against him.

Emily: Another note about the crappy writing here — they mention using the atom bomb about four times, but never actually use it?! It’s like, the berries were a lazy Chekhov’s gun, while the atom bomb itself is the equivalent of the gun that was just left hanging on the wall and never touched. Did they just mention it so much because it seemed relevant at the height of the Cold War? Or maybe they decided against using it because they didn’t want to freak viewers out with what was so obviously still a sensitive issue and a fresh wound? Worth pondering, maybe.

Alex: They were probably worried that any stock footage they used of atom bombs exploding would be far too realistic when compared with their actual special effects work.

Back to this final, most epic of fights. The Japanese military elects to carry Kong to a neutral battle location on an airlift, via… hot air balloons. Yes, really.

Emily: It’s worth including an image of this since I find it hilarious.

Fine, fine, several images.

EXHIBIT A:

EXHIBIT B:

EXHIBIT C:

EXHIBIT D:

Alex: Powerful, powerful stuff Emily, thanks for sharing.

Anyway, after Kong awakens from his berry juice nap and air balloon ride, the second Kong-Godzilla title bout commences. Godzilla, as should be expected based on the core attributes mentioned above, possesses the clear upper hand, twice leveling Kong and covering him with rocks. Godzilla also lays down a dope drop-kick to Kong’s chest at one point. THEN, though, lightning hits the scene, and suddenly Kong is strengthened by the electricity (as the newscaster bro’s on the scene helpfully mention to us, the audience, but not to anyone over a newscast — they’re just kind of watching as citizens, not broadcasters, for some reason). Kong and Godzilla continue to wrestle, for a long, long time. Kong stuffs a tree up Godzilla’s throat temporarily. Suddenly, Kong seems to be able to shoot electricity out of his paws?

THEN, though, we get a dope set piece: Kong vs. Godzilla next to a picturesque temple on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. They level the fuck out of the miniature temple. This induces an earthquake, sending Kong safely out to sea… where he decides to… walking back to Faro Island. There’s no sign of Godzilla, who has “disappeared without a trace.” Keeping things nice and open-ended for further franchise entries.

E-Schick, my big question to you is this: why is it that with every “X vs. Y” franchise mash-up movie (“King Kong vs. Godzilla,” “Frankenstein Meets The Wolf-Man,” “Freddy Vs. Jason,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Alien vs. Predator”), there can’t ever be a clear winner? Is it because the movies are all just shameless cross-promotional money grabs, masquerading as movies, and they need to keep both sides’ fanbases happy in each case? You know what, I think I just answered my own question.

(ALSO — despite my generally hating on “King Kong vs. Godzilla” throughout this piece, I’d say there’s about an 80% chance that I’m going to buy the Blu-Ray.)

(ALSO — my official star rating for this would be * 1/2 stars out of ****, the imaginative creature battles are the only thing that keep this from the zero-star gutter.)

Emily: Yep — they want to leave these mysterious holes and gaps (e.g. “Godzilla has disappeared without a trace! How strange!”) so they can be filled by a future movie, which to them just means more $$$. That’s part of the reason I generally avoid these films, as they seem like a marketing tool rather than authentic art. I have to say that the original Kong and Godzilla films are great and significant in their own right, but this one just ground away at me. It might have been more exciting to watch somebody exfoliate their feet or grade papers. (I mention grading papers because that’s what I do with the majority of my free time these days. #EnglishTeacherLife).

Some highlights for me, mostly for their ridiculousness —

Our brave lead, Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and his skittish partner Kinsaboru Furue (Yū Fujiki) on Faro Island in a very stupid exchange about scaredy-cats’ corns:
“My corns always hurt near a monster!”
“I don’t wanna hear about your corns!”
“You and your corns can just GO HOME!” (I… think that was a line. I honestly don’t want to go back and check.)

The super-sexual dance the native women do, the image of which makes a really dumb, laughable psychedelic reappearance when our brave/racist lead is drumming at the end of the film to get Kong to chill.

“You’ll be killed! You’ll be KILLLLLED!!!” (Bro telling our lead to avoid running toward the train that Godzilla decides to REK.)

“Child, we’re not going to a zoo hurry!” (Mid-movie, the mother of our tale’s heroine Fumiko says this to her grandson in the same cadence as written — no pause between “zoo” and hurry” making it #awkwardaf.)  

Look out for our next Critical Exchangecore in November, in which we will analyze a film about a giant killer turkey that will (probably) terrorize some (most likely) innocent city.

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