Kong: Skull Island – Laying the Table for Godzilla vs Kong

Image Source - kongskullisland-movie.com/scified.com

In case you weren’t paying attention/had better things to do/were handcuffed to a radiator somewhere in Eastern Europe over the weekend, the first full trailer for Kong: Skull Island was released to coincide with Comic Con and boy, it’s a doozy. For 2 exhilarating minutes we’re given a solid impression of the tone of the movie and the approach Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team have taken with the franchise. In short, it’s all very promising, the casting is absolutely stellar, with John Goodman back in mercurial mode again after reminding us all what he can do with it in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Samuel L. Jackson is a solid choice as your commonplace Apone-from-Aliens stand-in and Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson look to be good picks for male and female leads. The decision to make it a 70s period piece was a wise one, as well, there’s a lot you can do with a film full of giant animals which also plays on the militaristic, Vietnam-burning, commie-hating ideology America was ramming down its own throat at that time.

There was something else that stood out to me, though – the visual style. The way it was lit, the colour palette, the design of the CGI, it was all eerily familiar territory, and then you remember which studios fronted this project – Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers. After that, it also seems even more significant that Max Borenstein was brought on for the screenplay, as he’s worked with Legendary and WB before, on Godzilla. You see, Godzilla marked the end of a partnership between the two companies, but last year it was renewed, in order to look after two monstrous franchises on US soil – Godzilla and King Kong (shortened to Kong). This is all very much by design, as the plan is to bring them together in 2020 in a film entitled Godzilla vs Kong.

Now, if that rings a bell, it’s because it happened once already, in Japan in 1962. King Kong vs Godzilla is a fascinating specimen. The original King Kong was never intended as a franchise film, franchise films didn’t really exist in 1933, but in the wake of the original Godzilla, Japan went monster mad, and for every new Kaiju they conceived and threw into the ring with the King of Monsters, they had snapped up another pre-existing one up for the same treatment. King Kong was… Not one of these, at least at first.

Here’s a little bit of bizarre film-making history for you. Around 1960, Willis O’Brien, the creator of King Kong, had the idea to make a film which involved Kong fighting a huge monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. It was eventually developed into a screenplay, with the support of RKO, called King Kong vs. Prometheus (a reference to the original title of the novel – The Modern Prometheus). Sadly, once RKO and O’Brien started trying to sell the idea on, studios wouldn’t bite, the stop motion cost was too high. Then, Toho came to the rescue, offering to produce the film using the same (far cheaper) rubber suit effects they’d been using for Godzilla and other Kaiju movies.

This is where it gets complicated, Toho decided that they wanted to make the film a celebration of their 30th anniversary, and so they expressed their desire to replace Frankenstein’s Monster with Godzilla, and a deal was struck with producer John Beck which effectively cut Willis O’Brien out of the project. It was years before it came out that he’d been the one to come up with the concept. The Frankenstein idea wasn’t lost though, Toho produced two films based around that idea – Frankenstein Conquers the World (which featured Baragon, a monster who turned up in several Godzilla movies later on) and War of the Gargantuas. A Frankenstein vs Godzilla project was toyed around with, but it was eventually reworked into Godzilla vs Mothra, good call on that one, Toho.

Weirdly though, the attributes which had originally been scripted for the Frankenstein creation are still present in King Kong vs Godzilla, as Kong is made more powerful by lightning. Even more weirdly, Toho made a failed attempt to further the Kong franchise in Japan with a movie called King Kong vs The Sea Monster, but RKO wouldn’t let them, so at the last minute he was replaced with Godzilla, with the final result being Ebirah Horror of the Deep, in which you see a dormant Godzilla awakened with the use of a lightning rod. Even more even more weirdly, many German dubs of Kaiju films rework the story so that Godzilla’s various adversaries are actually of Dr. Frankenstein’s making, presumably in order to increase appeal to national audiences, even though the book was written by a Brit.

So, that’s all completely bonkers, but back to King Kong vs Godzilla. It was also the film which Eiji Tsuburaya used as the flagship to lead the Godzilla franchise in a more lighthearted direction, a move which gradually morphed the iconic monster into a giant scaly puppy, until original creator Tomoyuki Tanaka took control of the franchise again in 1984 and turned him back into an antagonist. Godzilla was still a bad guy in King Kong vs Godzilla though, as was Kong, and the narrative trope of letting two monsters fight each other in the hopes of mutually assured destruction became a thing (and it’s refused to go away since). The lightheartedness mainly comes through in the fighting, which is positively cartoonish, especially compared to the combatants’ previous outings. At one point they just start chucking a boulder back and forth. Kong also shoves a tree in Godzilla’s mouth, it’s hilarious.

Image Source: legionofleia.com
Image Source: legionofleia.com

Anyway, ever since then it’s been taken as read that if the Godzilla franchise did take off in the US, the matchup would be a revisited, and so it has turned out. When Legendary renewed the partnership (off the back of Godzilla‘s box office success), a deal was made to produce a sequel, a Kong movie, and finally a Godzilla and Kong movie. There’s one key issue with this, however – size. Both Godzilla and Kong have gotten progressively bigger as their franchises have progressed. Kong was originally 25 feet tall, grew to 55 feet for the 1970 remake and then 60 feet for the outrageously shit sequel. He went back to 25 for the underrated Peter Jackson version, and was blown up to 147 for the original King Kong vs Godzilla, because fuck logic. Godzilla, meanwhile, has had an even more dramatic scale increase, growing from around 160ft in the original film to around 350ft in the latest one. That scale simply wouldn’t make any sense for Kong; no tropical island, however thickly forested, can hide a beast that size.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts has gone on record to say that this new Kong will be 100ft tall. That’s still ludicrously massive for an ape, but less than a third the size of his adversary. This begs the important question – how on earth is he ever going to stand a chance? Well, judging from what little Legendary have said about it, it’s probably going to be a case of brains versus braun. The other thing worth bearing in mind is that Godzilla wasn’t antagonistic in the 2014 film, he was characterised as a means of balance, an ancient guardian of Earth. This could mean that the new Kong won’t be quite as loveable as his stop-motion ancestor, or that there is some issue between the two monsters that’s beyond human reckoning. You also have to wonder about whether or not they will be the only monsters to show up. It’s already been confirmed that Rodan, King Ghidorah and Mothra will all be appearing in Godzilla 2, once they find a new director to take over from Gareth Edwards, and supposedly Legendary have the run of the complete Toho toy box, which at this point is filled with hundreds of weird and wonderful monsters.

Watch the Skull Island trailer again and pay very close attention at the 0:50 mark, see that thing blocking the sunlight? Spider, massive fucking spider. Not only is this a really clever piece of cinematography/effects placement (the legs resemble bamboo trunks), but it’s a reminder of two things – Skull Island is crawling with malicious megafauna, and there’s a giant spider in the Kaiju wheelhouse – Kumonga. Kumonga was cursed with a pretty poor stage to debut on, the unremittingly awful Son of Godzilla, but she’s become something of a fan favourite and the resemblance between her and that unsettling silhouette is rather striking.

Image Source: YouTube/Godzilla wikia
Image Source: YouTube/Godzilla wikia

Allegedly, the Monarch group which was established in the narrative in the 2014 film will be the thing to tie all this together, so it’s possible that some of the hapless visitors to Skull Island are either current, former, or future affiliates, and even if particular Kaiju aren’t mentioned by name, it’s a great excuse to pay tribute. Additionally, this is likely acting as a send up to the ‘spider pit’ scene, which was cut from the original King Kong because it freaked audiences out so much that they actually got up and ran the fuck out of the cinema. Jackson did his own version of it in 2005 and it’s infamously an almost jarringly disturbing segment of an already pretty dark film. This is the beauty of giving the two franchises a simultaneous, amalgamated reboot, you can merge their mythology, and use it as a nod to long time fans on both sides. Or it could just be a massive coinkydink.

However this turns out, Skull Island has a great deal of potential, and the approach taken has been almost identical to that of Godzilla (first big budget project for indie director, lengthy location shoot, veteran mo-cap team), so any mistakes made on that film will hopefully be better addressed this time around (like, say, killing the most interesting character in the film 30 minutes in). Personally, I’m a bit more excited about the second Godzilla film, but I’m biased, King Ghidorah is my favourite movie monster ever.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally stated that Gareth Edwards was still the director for Godzilla 2, this has since been corrected.

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