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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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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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