Movie Review: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) – Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films 3

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

Premise: A newspaper and television station funded by a pharmaceutical company want a sensation, which happens to be the discovery of King Kong on an island. He is captured and brought to Japan, where he escapes from captivity and battles Godzilla.

The US version of King Kong vs Godzilla is certainly a less piecemeal repurposing of its Japanese original than Godzilla, King of the Monsters was to 1954’s Godzilla. Instead, the film plays into the spectator sport aspect of this monumental confrontation. Bringing Godzilla into color film and taking Kong to Japan to do battle with him, King Kong vs Godzilla, while over the top in its silliness at times, provides a worthy payoff to the hour (and then some) of set up and contrivances to get these two monsters to duke it out.

Although the specter of nuclear arms does loom in the background as a worst case scenario solution to the destruction at hand, King Kong vs Godzilla mostly abandons it as social commentary. Instead, the film shifts its social focus to the bloodlust of spectator sports and the universal and timeless themes of commerce and brand recognition. These help lessen the tone of the film and allows for a more comedic view of the monsters at hand. While the comedy is fairly rote and harmless throughout it, it does get grating when the pharmaceutical company’s representatives are on Kong’s island. The scenes on the island in the original King Kong (1933) did such a fine and memorable job of showcasing the indigenous people of Skull Island that it was bothersome to see them relegated to the butt of jokes that rarely landed in this film.

While the film does contrive reasons to bring the two monsters together for an epic showdown, King Kong vs Godzilla is not without a decent share of action sequences throughout it. By far, the most memorable and unique set piece is in Kong’s battle with a giant octopus that threatens a young boy and woman inside a house. The sight of the octopus elicits an unexpected guffaw from the audience and heightens your anxiety slightly. The creature is also accompanied by incredible sound design that helps sell the threat alongside impressive visuals. Of course, the result of the battle that rages between Kong and the octopus is something of a given. However, that doesn’t deter from the spectacle of seeing the fight unfold. This feeling also provides a nice projection of the bloodlust themes of the film back onto the audience.

The depiction of Godzilla in the film does not disappoint. It’s the first time the iconic monster has been shown in color and seeing the blue hue of his power for the first time in color is a real treat. The destruction on display throughout King Kong vs Godzilla includes highly detailed miniatures, men in suits, and forced perspective. It’s not as cheesy as one might expect coming into it, however. This film successfully creates convincing destruction that is highly entertaining. A military assault on Godzilla that utilizes miniatures and pyrotechnics is so good it threatened to overshadow the titular confrontation. It is a joy to watch and a fantastic reminder of the sheer power of Godzilla.

There’s a framing device of international newscasters reporting on the ongoing destruction. While this is a surprisingly solid framing device that doesn’t deter from the action as much as one might think, it does have its issues. In particular, the dialogue used to set up the showdown between Godzilla and Kong is eye roll inducing in how hard the script works to try to convince the audience that these two monsters are perfect nemeses of each other. It feels unnecessary from a plot perspective to treat the audience to some preamble to the showdown. In fact, the two monsters have an initial encounter that provides all the preamble and stakes one could hope for going into the climax of the film. Nevertheless, the ensuing action and destruction does mostly make up for any shortcomings from the script.

Before the film delivers on the promise of an epic showdown between King Kong and Godzilla, it treats us to a retread of King Kong (1933). This time Kong is in Tokyo and it detracts from the narrative significantly as it rehashes the iconography of the 1933 film in a different location. Although it does provide closure to the arcs of human characters we have been following, it feels like a needless pitstop on the road to the battle of Kong vs Godzilla.

When we do finally get the final encounter between Kong and Godzilla, it pays off the preceding hour and change very well. The architecture and detail of the miniatures used make for wonderful and, at times, jaw dropping displays of destruction as the monsters do battle. The fight between the two is interesting in its variety. We see Godzilla pummel Kong with his tail, an effective and new maneuver that is used the perfect amount. In order to even the playing field, Kong is given an ability involving lightning that feels slightly out of left field. However, the effects used helped keep it fun and made the contrivances surrounding it more forgiving.

The US version of King Kong vs Godzilla is a worthy enough entry in both monsters’ respective canons. Although it leans a little too heavily on silly comedy beats and some contrivances to get the two monsters together, the battle between Kong and Godzilla at the end is a very enjoyable payoff. Commerce and spectator sports get a worthy social commentary treatment, which matches the more silly tone of this film and helps make for a more complete viewing experience.

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About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll. 

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