Thoughts on Kong: Skull Island and the Kaiju Genre

I think it’s safe to say that I’m a pretty big B movie fan. This is the legacy of being a sci fi / fantasy fan. It’s easy to forget in this day where the sci fi blockbuster has become a staple of Summer cinema, but there was a time when science fiction and fantasy were generally the step children of cinema. Nobody was that excited to make those type of stories, and they were often considered sub-mainstream.

This didn’t prevent sci fi movies from being made. They just usually weren’t the “big” pictures. There’s a reason that, for decades, monsters and magic, spaceships and aliens were seen as the domain of disposable cinema. There wasn’t much prestige to be found in them, and they were usually lower budget flicks. It wasn’t that the creators didn’t care (though often they were more interested in churning out a quickie film than in creating a lasting classic). it was simply that science fiction was mostly considered a smaller, less important genre.

The rise of the big budget fantasy blockbuster is a relatively new phenomenon. It arguably started with Star Wars, although Forbidden Planet was a high profile attempt to create a thrilling sci fi film. I’m sure film scholars could give all kinds of great examples of the fits and starts of mainstream science fiction cinema, but for much of film history, fantasy and sci fi was either seen as kid’s stuff, disposable, or immature escapism. It’s a legacy that still clings with the genre today. The Lord of the Rings might have won Best Picture, but neither Hollywood nor the mainstream community have been very eager to view fantasy and science fiction as more than just forgettable entertainment.

Exceptions exist of course. From 2001 to Arrival, there has always been the occasional “smart” sci fi film to justify the genre. These films tend to be held up as the best of what fantasy and sci fi cinema can offer. The other stuff, the monsters, the space battles, the weird and ridiculous, is rarely seen as worthy of much praise. That’s a real shame, but it’s true.

I love that kind of stuff, which is obvious when you read nearly anything I’ve ever written. I love giant monsters and spaceships and psychic powers and superheroes. It’s also why a lot of people think I write disposable stuff as well, but that’s neither here nor there.

It struck me while watching Kong: Skull Island that I was watching the big budget equivalent of dozens of previous B movie’s about people stranded on a forbidden island filled with monsters. Our heroes arrive, discover a monster, struggle to survive the dangers of the island and among their own ranks, and then finally team up with Kong to beat another monster. It’s not a particularly new story, but it is strange to see it done with such a lavish budget.

I loved it. Skull Island was a blast, fixing much of what I hated about Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla. The monsters are front and center in this story, and rather than treating its title character as a liability, Skull Island gives Kong plenty of screen time. He’s an engaging presence, and every scene with the big guy is delightful for a kaiju fan such as myself.

But the question we have to ask, the one that Hollywood hasn’t really asked itself, is how many people were clamoring for something like this?

Godzilla did well, both critically and financially, but it isn’t really a monster movie as far as I’m concerned. It’s a movie with some monsters in it, but it very deliberately avoids spending much time with any of them. I’m not trying to stake a claim on kaiju fandom, but if you walked out of Godzilla satisfied, then you have very different expectations from a kaiju flick than I do.

I’ve spent much of my life enjoying things that most people look down upon. It’s not that I think every monster movie is great cinema, but I think the truly great movies that have been made are rarely acknowledged. Instead, people equate the entire genre with a dumbed down silliness. And when we’re talking about giant monsters punching each other for the fate of the world, it’s difficult to deny the silliness of it. But that’s pulp. That’s fantasy. It’s full of weird silliness, and it’s all right to take it somewhat seriously.

There’s a stinger at the end of Skull Island, but I noticed very few staying through the credits to see it. SPOILER ALERT: It teases the possibility of a more kaiju films featuring Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. The idea of a shared cinematic universe with these iconic monsters fills me with some hope, but is the mainstream audience clamoring for this? I just don’t think so. At least, not enough to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make them.

As mainstream as sci fi and fantasy have become, it’s still difficult for me to imagine American audiences embracing kaiju flicks with any real passion. It’s a prejudice of mine, I’ll admit. I’ve loved the kaiju genre for as long as I’ve remembered, and I know there are fans out there. Marvel may have made mainstream movie successes out of Thor, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange, but can it do the same to a giant pteranodon and insect? Will audiences flock to see King Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon, spit lightning in a kaiju Avengers film?

I’m just going to say no.

I could be wrong.

But with two films down in this shared universe, it seems as if steam is already running out. Skull Island left me eager for more kaiju adventure, but if it underperforms at the box office, then we’re more likely to get the boring Godzilla in response. I can’t imagine someone preferring the boring Godzilla to the more exciting Skull Island but I’m also the guy who prefers Iron Man to Tony Stark and thinks Star Wars is a zombie franchise with almost no artistic value. So I’m not a great predictor of these things.

Whatever happens, I did enjoy the hell out of Kong: Skull Island. But any film where Kong fights a giant octopus is bound to get a thumbs up from me.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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3 Comments

  1. Carlos Ferreira
    Posted March 16, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Here is a question from someone who has an enduring love of the kaiju genre, but a) rather liked Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and b) hasn’t seen Kong: Skull Island yet: What is your take on Pacific Rim?

    I am asking because I really, really liked it. To me, it brought the best of two worlds: really good kaiju action sequences AND decent-enough human character development. I’ll go as far as saying that the humans in Pacific Rim were more interesting that the ones in Godzilla, sci-fi outfits notwithstanding. The sound track was pretty good, too.

    Anyway, looking forward to more of your writing. Cheers!

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted March 17, 2017 at 2:30 am | Permalink

      I really enjoyed Pacific Rim, feeling it had a good story, good characters, and some cool kaiju action. My only disappointment is with the disposable nature of many of the jaegers. I would’ve preferred they didn’t fall so easily.

      But it was an enjoyable film and the action was solid, and one of my favorite films of any genre.

      • Carlos Ferreira
        Posted March 17, 2017 at 3:45 am | Permalink

        I think I subscribe to both the appraisal and the criticism. I hear that the novelisation treats some of the other jaegers much better, so it might be worth a look.

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