In the super-sized slugfest Godzilla vs. Kong, now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, two of cinema’s mightiest monster-movie titans go toe-to-toe on a cross-continental rampage, leaving comically outsized destruction in their wake and finally answering the question of which beast can truly claim the title of “king of the monsters.” In one corner, there’s Godzilla, the noble warrior Kaiju, he of the atomic breath, armored scales, and ear-splitting roar. In the other, there’s King Kong, the greatest of the great apes, who can extend one finger in a gentle caress or ball his hands into fists to hurl a fearsome haymaker.
That this massive, long-fated melee between giant lizard and giant ape is not a bastion of scientific accuracy somewhat comes with the blockbuster territory. And Godzilla vs. Kong’s story does take its skyscraper-sized sparring partners to unusually absurd heights, pitting the pair against a mechanical Mechagodzilla opponent and suggesting that both originated at the center of the planet as part of a so-called Hollow Earth theory. That said, there’s something poignant and riveting about just watching Godzilla and Kong’s facial expressions in the new film: the weary resignation flitting across ‘Zilla’s reptilian visage, the alternately tender and rageful passion that’s turned Kong into an unlikely romantic hero.
In order to discuss the emotional realities of these brawling beasts, I reached out to American animal behavioral ecologist Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A foremost expert on cognitive ethology and animal emotion, Bekoff co-founded the group Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. He’s a past Guggenheim fellow, and the author of an intimidating number of essays and books on animal behavior, ethics, emotion, and relationships (see: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; Bekoff’s next book, Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans, is co-written with Jessica Pierce and due out this fall from Princeton University Press.”)
Speaking by phone from Colorado, Dr. Bekoff graciously answered my burning questions about Godzilla vs. Kong, specifically what it gets right and wrong about animal behavior, how he feels about the relationship between these two titans, and where he thinks the filmmakers were just monkeying around.
To start us off, Dr. Bekoff, what did you make of Godzilla vs. Kong overall?
I will say these aren’t my usual types of film. But I’ve watched classic films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the original Godzilla, It Came from Outer Space, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and of course TV shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family. And I thought [Godzilla vs. Kong] was really interesting. I was focusing as much as I could on Godzilla and Kong, because the little interludes with the people didn’t do much for me, I’ll admit. But it’s interesting to watch the way they capture the behavior of these animals.
Whether they could communicate with one another, that is something I thought about from an ethological point of view. I don’t know how in the world they’d read one another’s signals, since lizards don’t actually growl like good old Godzilla, and they do different types of displays, like bobbing their heads or letting the dewlap under their chin change color or position when they feel aggressive. But I could see the appeal of the movie! It’s fantastical. It certainly pulled me out of the funk we’ve had here in Boulder after the mass shootings and the whole COVID situation. I can see why they’re popular.
Kong, especially, is humanized by the plot of the new film. He has a unique bond with a young deaf girl named Jia (Kayle Hottle), an orphaned Iwi native. How did you feel about the way that relationship was depicted?
My understanding is that many gorillas are either friendly toward or ignore humans. I mean, seriously, I’d rather be around a wild gorilla than a mad dog. They seem more tolerant. And they do form bonds with younger individuals, though usually of their same species… But the forming of these bonds [between gorilla and human] is in some cases real. People in Uganda and other places can go out for an hour a day to sit with the gorillas there. I thought that was well-done, the bonding and the tolerance Kong shows toward humans.
Even before Godzilla meets Kong, scientists are anticipating their showdown. One’s king of the monsters, the other bows to no one. But if these two creatures existed, what’s the likelihood they would actually fight?
In the real world, there’s just no lizard big enough in size to interact with a gorilla. My guess is that, in the wild, the only way a lizard would be killed by a gorilla is if the gorilla stepped on the lizard.
But involved in their interactions are dominance displays and threats, which you see in real lizards and real great apes. They’ll bare their teeth. There’ll be vocalizations and sometimes odors. And many of those threat displays are really intended to lessen the likelihood of a physical encounter. Even if you’re a dominant animal and you have a fight, you might get injured. You could win the battle but lose the war, if you become injured and that affects your survival or your ability to reproduce and make more of yourself.
When you watch Godzilla vs. Kong as an ethologist, with these humongous characters, you see more than you would in the real lizard world or the real gorilla world. But I thought their fights were well-done, I really do. These were dominance fights, they avoided one another, and – assuming they could each understand what was going on – they communicated their intentions.
The filmmakers make it easy to read their body language, too. What did you make of the signals Godzilla and Kong give each other at the outset of these battles?
I thought that was well-done, actually. To the best of my knowledge, there are no lizards with such expressive features or that vocalize in the way Godzilla does. But that’s not a criticism. He – or she – is a giant lizard and communicated in what I’d say was a very mammal-like way. And I’d imagine it’d be much easier [for the audience] to have Godzilla communicate mammal-like than to have Kong communicate lizard-like. The facial expressions, the baring of the teeth, the growling – all those dominance displays would make it easier for them to read one another.
Even if you had the sound off, you wouldn’t have to engage much imagination to see these two animals were having an aggressive encounter. In real life, I don’t think there’s a gorilla in the wild who’s going to be able to read or even care about an aggressive message from a lizard, so the film’s way of approaching that was good. They were trying to show that these two were natural-born enemies.
When we first meet King Kong in Godzilla vs. Kong, he’s being monitored by Monarch within a giant dome on Skull Island, which has been populated with many of the same primeval creatures we saw him battling in the last film. Would you ever see a containment facility taken to that extreme?
I don’t know if there’s anything like that. People at these rehab facilities are working 24/10, not 24/7; it’s a non-stop job. They try to replicate certain things. If the animals are arboreal, they can go into trees. The idea is to give them as natural a habitat as possible. But you’re not bringing in other animals. The analogy there would be having a bunch of lions and tigers at a zoo and letting them kill deer. [laughs] I actually thought that was a really cool idea, but I don’t know of any habitats that bring in other animals that live among them when they’re free in the wild.
Would containing an animal of King Kong’s size even be possible from an ethology perspective?
No, not at all. Even normal-sized gorillas, it’s difficult. Moving them around for researchers’ convenience is highly unethical, and although it’s been done with all kinds of field techniques – tracking or marking them, fitting them with collars – it’s still done but now it’s done in a much more ethical way. But confining an animal like Kong on a strange island so you can study him, there are a lot of ethical questions there.
Warrior that he is, Kong uses tools throughout the film, stripping a tree of its branches to turn it into a javelin, swinging creatures around in the air, eventually wielding an axe forged by his ancestors. How does that square with what’s actually been observed of great apes using tools in the wild?
I don’t know about gorillas, precisely, but Jane Goodall observed a chimpanzee using a 50-gallon drum, rolling it around as some kind of aggressive dominance display. So it’s possible, and perhaps it’s been observed before, that animals like Kong would pick up a branch or the limb of a tree and use it as some kind of signal of aggression. Yes, that’s possible.
The battle between Godzilla and Kong turns out to be a three-round fight, with their first skirmish taking place at sea, where Kong seems especially out of his element, and two later melees (including one against Mechagodzilla) spilling out into the streets of Hong Kong, where they’re on more even footing. Do animals consciously gravitate toward fighting in areas where they have a home advantage, so to speak?
Definitely. There’s a whole area of research in ethology called the resident effect. In some species, animals can more likely control, dominate, or if you will “win” an interaction when they’re on their home soil. Definitely. That’s a real aspect of animal behavior, relying on familiarity with the home soil. When you feel more secure, more at home, you might be more aggressive, assertive, or at least grounded. The analogy could be with professional sports teams in basketball, football, soccer, maybe baseball. When you’re playing at home, you have better win-loss records. You’re not getting tired by traveling, you know the area, and you can drive to a game instead of flying in and going to a hotel room.
Anthropomorphism and the representation of animals on screen feels related to your field of study in that filmmakers often project human emotions onto the animals they’re depicting But you also see negative depictions of animals: monstrous sharks, bloodthirsty wolves, fairly evil-looking crocodiles. How “good” was the depiction of Godzilla and Kong through an ethological lens?
What I’d say, and what I would hope, is that people who don’t know about the behavior of animals like Kong or Godzilla will look into that. The film represents them as being far more dominant, assertive, and aggressive than they are in the wild. But I can’t put a value on that, because the film’s meant to be action-packed and escapist. And then you have the flip side as well, where the gorilla has this relationship with a little girl.
In the originals, he takes a young woman up the Empire State Building to protect her. That’s very touching. After all the displays of dominance and the manipulations by humans, here he is protecting a woman he could have crushed in his enormous hand. There’s a sentimentality to that. Gorillas display a lot of tolerance, a lot of avoidance. On these paid expeditions to sit and watch them, people will have a gorilla standing right behind them, just out of curiosity.
Movies like Godzilla vs. Kong are substantially one-sided, because people aren’t going to sit for two hours and watch animals groom one another or be nice to one another. It’s like the news in the paper. You read about all these violent interactions between predators and humans, when in fact such interactions are extremely rare. Nice things don’t make the news.
Right, of course. I saw Bruce Willis sit down at Canter’s Deli last year and get a pastrami reuben. He went and sat in the corner, ate his sandwich, like a normal person. No shooting, no yelling, no one-liners. But if I go see a Die Hard sequel, I’m not expecting to see him eat a pastrami reuben.
Blood sells. Violence sells. Godzilla vs. Kong was never going to be two hours of them meeting, sitting down, grooming one another, cracking open a beer and having a nice chat. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just what it is. Even I watch these movies as total escapes. Sometimes, I don’t even know if I can follow the story. But the action grabs you… It’s a pretty hot, red movie. But when you look at these monster movies, it is important to try to ground them in the real world. There will be people who watch that and walk away thinking that wild gorillas are aggressive, assertive no-gooders, when that’s not the case.
This interview has been edited and condensed.