208) King Kong Escapes (1967) Dir: Ishiro Honda Date Released: June 1968 Date Seen: July 5th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
Take a giant ape with a thing for blondes, toss in a remote-controlled robot doppelganger armed with grenades and mix in an evil scientist with a secret hideout full of armed goons all wearing gumball orange helmets and you have a sure-fire hit. In principle, at least. King Kong Escapes mucks up in focussing so much on the paltry human-based overplot that it forgets that the real reason people watch the film is to watch a giant ape grapple with a giant robot.
Director Ishiro honda and writer Takeshi Kimura take the worst parts of Toho's rote monster movie formula, marginalizing the bulk of the breezy carnage and discoveries about the monsters' origins and strengths for the sake of spending more time with square, charmless and easily forgettable mortal heroes and villains--not even the cloaked Dr. Who (not related, fanboys!), who struts around his lair with a silver pomp more deadly than his pistol. The few scenes with the monsters are fun and the spirit of naively zany storytelling is inescapable but most of the time, there's no reason to care.
Note: Something I didn't effectively communicate the first time around (this being added several days after I watched the film) is that a Godzilla or King Kong movie need not necessarily be all about kaiju carnage and flammable model kits. They just need to reflect the inventiveness and the joy of revelation that those scenes effectively communicate through more, shall we say, immediate means. The plot in King Kong Escapes stalls interminably because it devotes too much time to watching people try to do things rather than doing something, anything. Dr. Who mostly tries to get rid of the evil do-gooders on his trail or tries to extract Element X. The attainment of those goals never feel consequential because there's no clear idea of what's at stake if he actually succeeds.
This fixation on repetitive, brainless action without consequence is most salient in the scene where Kong is hypnotized by Dr. Who into feverishly cultivating Element X out of the ice it's embedded in. Kong digs and digs but eventually he breaks free of Who's control because...um....shiny light? During the scene, Kong's actions are only understandable after the fact through the hysterical admonishments of Dr. Who as he inevitably loses control of his mindless slave. There's no reason to care about what's happening because it's just a foregone conclusion reached without relatable or decipherable motives.
By contrast, Godzilla Vs. Mecha-Godzilla, which I recently re-visited just before this film, was able to make each scene feel consequential, springing to life with a spontaneity that never failed to impress me with its devotion to nonsensical details. Good monster movies can and have been made in the Toho mold. Sadly, it's just too easy to make crap in them, even if that crap has more glimmers of inventiveness than most other kinds of bad monster movies.