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Eclipse of the supermen - why monsters are Hollywood's most colossal love story

Kong: Skull Island shows monster movies have matured. 

In 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men signalled the start of modern Hollywood’s love affair with live action superhero films. There have been tiffs since – Spiderman 3 is a sore spot– but hits like The Dark Knight and Watchmen have made sure that this is a relationship, whether for better or for worse, that is going to continue for some time yet. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Green Lantern Corps bookend a stretch of 16 live action superhero films planned over the next three years.

Hollywood, though, seems to recognise the risk attached to saturation and has lined up a plan B – giant monster movies. In this, heavyweight filmmakers Legendary Entertainment is leading the way. Legendary has been responsible for several superhero flicks, including Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman adaptations, but following the success of Pacific Rim, it is pretty sure about what the next long-term trend in Tinseltown should be. The company has acquired the rights to big screen beasts Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidorah and King Kong, and their so-called MonsterVerse franchise is already underway. 

The MonsterVerse’s first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, was spectacular if a little silly. (The plot hinged on Godzilla stopping two other monsters from having sex.) The MonsterVerse’s second instalment, Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and released earlier this month, is even better. It is a clever homage to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness on the one hand, and an enjoyable adrenalin rush on the other. This reimagining is equal parts fun and feisty. 

When Peter Jackson remade King Kong as a one-off in 2005, it actually was a remake and largely followed same storyline as the 1933 original: ambitious filmmaker Carl Denham takes unsuspecting actress Ann Darrow and others to an uncharted island with a great ape overlord. Denham then captures Kong, ferries him back to New York and promotes him as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” before he breaks free of his chains, scales and falls from the Empire State Building.

Kong: Skull Island offers a fresh take. Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, eccentric American government scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) enlists the help of former SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the Sky Devils, an elite helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), as part of expedition to the titular location. The group are accompanied by go-getting photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and are initially under the impression that they are on a mission in the name of geology. 

That cover is blown when the helicopters are brought down by Kong, who is 100ft tall in this incarnation. The film also features the secret supernatural investigations body Monarch, which is what ties the MonsterVerse films together. John C. Reilly, meanwhile, delivers and dually comic and emotional performance as Hank Marlow, an American fighter pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since the Second World War.

Like Godzilla before it, Kong: Skull Island provides some engaging human stories: Packard’s prejudice is an extension of his residual bloodlust from an unsuccessful war and Marlow struggles with the prospect of never meeting his son. 

Legendary are set to follow Kong: Skull Island with their Godzilla sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters in March 2019, before a crossover gambit Godzilla vs. Kong in May 2020, which could either define or derail the genre. That Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice grossed $873.3m at the box office is down more to morbid curiosity than it is representative of legions of fans.

The fact is that giant monster movies, Legendary’s in particular, have matured and we’ve come a long way since Attack of the 50ft Woman or Night of the Lepus. That’s not to say that a 100ft gorilla is any more realistic as a proposition, but thanks to special effects, it does feel more real.

Still, it's not enough to simply cite CGI over stop-motion and call it a success – see 1998's Godzilla. Success comes through characterisation. So goodbye scream queens and cartoon-quality villainy; hello complex questions about humanity versus monstrosity.

 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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