Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima is widely regarded as one of the true video game auteurs. Though the 53-year-old is most closely associated with his work leading the production of some of the most beloved narrative games of the past 30 years, his original ambition, prior to joining Konami in 1986, was to become a movie director. His passion for film has long informed his work in games, leading most recently director Guillermo del Toro starring in his new game for Sony Interactive Entertainment, Death Stranding.
Though Kojima is secretive about his new game, he's eager to share his passion for movies. When we spoke with him recently about what drives him as an artist, he asked us if we'd be open to him sharing his thoughts on cinema in a monthly series of short essays (we said yes).
With Kong: Skull Island in cinemas March 10, he was eager to write about it because of his connection to the film's director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who has been attached to the movie adaptation of Metal Gear Solid for the past three years.
Read Kojima's essay below:
Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island isn't really a remake, reboot or sequel, but a masterpiece in its own right. Because of its visual presentation the initial impression is of an Apocalypse Now meets King Kong mashup, but in reality it's a daringly ambitious, and wholly original take on King Kong. In fact, it purposely removes itself from the traditional requirements of a Kong movie, and that's how it achieves greatness.
Early Kong films were a fusion of action and technology, a structure which has remained largely unchanged even into the modern era. Just as in Georges Méliès' classic A Trip to the Moon, the original 1933 King Kong movie showed audiences something they had never seen before by utilizing the latest technological innovations. For its key storytelling beats and thrilling moments, it relied primarily on physical action and stunts performed by live actors in the vein of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. As I mentioned in my previous commentary, Mad Max: Fury Road is a similar masterpiece that encapsulates the essence of early cinema by utilizing a combination of the latest technology with a sparing use of dialog, while leaning heavily on action to tell its story.
Stop motion animation was used to breathe life into the giant monster in the 1933 original, and the amazing imagery of Kong convinced both the pioneering visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen and the father of Japanese visual effects, Eiji Tsuburaya, to begin their careers as movie monster makers. Harryhausen went on to collaborate with his high school friend, sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, to create the monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, which later served as a strong inspiration for Godzilla a year later in 1954. The original King Kong was a turning point for special effects movies. It was the point at which the underlying technology of all sci-fi and fantasy movies was reborn and refined.
It's clear that this is the first interpretation of the Kong story that has been influenced by years of Japanese monster movies.
Subsequent remakes also relied on this pairing of technology and action. In the 1976 John Guillermin remake, a variety of techniques including animatronics – then considered advanced SFX – along with a full-scale prop and a King Kong suit (worn by none other than special makeup effects guru Rick Baker, the man behind the amazing physical transformation in 1981's An American Werewolf in London) were used to great effect. The 2005 Peter Jackson remake featured VFX that were a mixture of motion capture and CG. Peter Jackson was famously inspired by the original King Kong to become a filmmaker, so it's only natural that his version took place in the same 1930s setting as the original. While staying true to the foundation of the original, Jackson's version uses new technology to advance the visual presentation.
But this latest rendition of King Kong is quite different. It doesn't just rely on the newest technology to generate its thrills. Of course, the work that ILM has done with motion capture and hand-tuned animation is nothing short of incredible, but portraying Kong with the latest technology was not the be all and end all.
Was this decision for lack of ideas? Has the march of technology stopped? No. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts simply seems to have made a conscious effort to deviate from the path of his predecessors. Until now all Kong movies have been branches on the 1933 original's evolutionary tree, but this Kong is a different beast altogether. This is immediately apparent when looking at the story setting and home of Kong: Skull Island. The story evolves Kong himself, not just the use of new technology.
The 1933 version of King Kong takes place near the end of the Great Depression. It's said that the era's pervading sense of economic uncertainty was a key factor in the movie's success. Viewers would flock to entertainment as a means to forget about the uncertainty in their lives, particularly their economic livelihood. In many ways, the story of King Kong is self-referential. An aspiring director takes a no-name actress to Skull Island to film his latest movie, but upon discovering King Kong, the director gives up filming and instead contrives to make his fortune by capturing the beast, and putting him on display in New York. Of course, Kong escapes the exhibition, and is killed. We see Kong himself as a metaphor for entertainment as a business – he dies a victim of capitalist consumption.
What about the 1976 Guillermin version? It's set during a second oil crisis. An oil company president sets out for the island with his sights on oil reserves, but finds Kong instead. The oil proves unfit for sale, so he opts to bring Kong home, and once again Kong is ultimately killed.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts successfully shows King Kong as a monster in a new light, and at the same time reinvigorates the medium.
Peter Jackson's 2005 interpretation is a remake with the same setting as the original (1930s), so again Kong's fate is death. In the past three movies Kong, the "freak show" (actually a business opportunity), is brought from the undeveloped frontier to a capitalist city, is consumed and then dies. Kong, who is offered ritual sacrifices as a god on Skull Island, becomes the sacrifice in the civilized world. Why? Kong is sacrificed to reinvigorate and stabilize civilization, which is stagnated in a state of economic and social uncertainty.
Previous Kong movies have been about pulling what is essentially a god from another civilization, and then dominating that god through western capitalist culture. In this movie, Kong is portrayed as a monster from beginning to end, and that is why Kong: Skull Island works so well. It's clear that this is the first interpretation of the Kong story that has been influenced by years of Japanese monster movies. For example, in both Mothra in 1966 and Gappa: The Triphibian Monster in 1967, the monsters that come to the city from a remote island are never sacrificed and eventually return to their home islands alive.
In Vogt-Roberts' film, Kong isn't summoned to civilization. Instead humans are thrown into the wild and uncivilized environment of Skull Island itself. These powerless humans don't fight Kong – their fight is with the environment. The foreign culture represented by Kong isn't ultimately eliminated to somehow benefit western civilization.
Back in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the fathers of contemporary science fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle (Lost World) and Jules Verne (The Mysterious Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth), both released works that took place in unexplored regions of the Earth. They were believable because there was still some mystery to the world back then. Similarly, the magic of King Kong has been predicated on there being some mystery to the world. Jordan Vogt-Roberts' movie is set in 1973, around the end of the Vietnam war, but those of us watching have a very different view of the world. In 2017, the net connects everything, and anything can be instantly Googled, eliminating any mystery. Thanks to Google Earth we can see every corner of the globe from our phones, and it's against this backdrop that the movie attempts to instill some fear and respect for the unknown.
Culture and systems aren't revived through the introduction of the unknown into our world. We must go to unknown places to be individually rejuvenated and refreshed. That is precisely the role that movies have in our time. Jordan Vogt-Roberts successfully shows King Kong as a monster in a new light, and at the same time reinvigorates the medium. For me, Kong: Skull Island redefines monster movies, and reinvigorates a story for a new generation.