King Kong vs. Godzilla

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/21/05 23:48:13

"Boy, I'd like to see the original Toho version."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: This movie is one of the greatest ideas ever. "King Kong" and "Godzilla" are both exciting works of fantasy, among the most popular films produced in their native lands, and the title characters are known world-wide. To have them square off is something that should make every fan of both movies giddy. It's too bad, then, that the movie (at least as presented in North America) is somewhat lackluster.

The plot, at least as it is presented here, has pharmaceutical/media kingpin Tako (Ichiro Arishima) sending an expedition to a tropical island to trade for berries which have incredible medicinal properties. The natives won't give them up, though, because of a "giant god". He dispatches Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (Yu Fujiki) to make a deal, or at least get film of this strange creature. They do get pictures of Kong, fighting with a giant octopus, and receive orders to bring the beast back to Tokyo with them - Tako wants his own monster after a nuclear submarine investigating an iceberg discovers another giant monster trapped within - a giant reptile with radioactive breath quickly christened "Gojira"!

Or at least, that's how it goes in the English-language version produced by Universal International and presented at the festival. Allegedly, the original Japanese version is more deliberate in its satire of big business; most of those bits seem to be left on the cutting room floor, replaced by seemingly endless scenes of Michael Keith and James Yagi in cheap-looking newsroom sets, delivering dry exposition while re-using the same clip of a communications satellite roughly seventy-five times. The biggest laugh may not even be intentional - one of the characters mentions that she plans to fly to Hokkaido to find information on her missing husband, with a quick cut to Yagi straight-facedly saying "do not go to Hokkaido!" Kind of silly, but by that point, I was so used to those patronizing scenes grinding the movie to a halt that such a bit of unexpected wit was triply funny.

One thing I rather like about Godzilla movies is what a continuity-free zone they seem to be. There have been several dozen made in the past fifty years (this being the third), and they could have developed a complex fictional history, but the rule generally seems to be that the original Gojira is in continuity, while anything in between that and the movie you're watching may not be (and probably isn't). This movie apparently posits that this is the first appearance of King Kong and Godzilla - at least, no mention is made of a giant ape who scaled the Empire State Building in the 1930s, or a skyscraper-sized reptile having been felled by the Oxygen Destroyer in the 1950s. Still, the people of Japan seem to recognize Godzilla, shouting his name when he emerges from his iceberg. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because the two will meet, and fight, with Tokyo leveled in the process, and that's what's really important.

Godzilla comes off looking a little better during the rubber-suit portions of the movie. He gets a new suit for his first appearance in color, revealing him as charcoal-gray instead of green or black. This is Kong's first color movie, too, but it's clear that Kong was not originally designed to be played by a live actor: He suffers from noticeably upright posture, and doesn't have the proper feeling of bulk to him that a gorilla or ape should have. He's got a funny-looking head, too. Still, when the time comes for them to actually fight, it's easy enough to put such things aside, as the two grapple and throw each other around, smashing scale-model buildings in the process. It's enjoyably grandiose, the kind of bloodless fantasy violence that would become a huge part of Godzilla's appeal.

I found myself falling into the trap of mocking King Kong vs. Godzilla several times, but there were kids sitting nearby who enjoyed the heck out of it. They didn't know about dubbing, or how the newsroom scenes must have been replacing something else, or the rest of the things that would bother a fan about this movie and presentation. They were watching the giant monkey wrestles with a giant octopus and a giant lizard, and that was what they came for; it was worth the price of admission.

This movie is such a great idea, it deserves a second chance. With Ryuhei Kitamura having recently made a fantastic Godzilla movie, and Peter Jackson's forthcoming "King Kong" looking to be in the same category, the time would seem to be ripe to give this another shot.

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