Let’s start with King Kong. It’s been 10 years since the last film version of King Kong, which was directed by Peter Jackson. (Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit) There was a remake by Dino De Laurentis in 1976, and even a few Japanese Dai Kaiju Eiga versions of the giant ape in the 1960s, (most famously meeting Godzilla) but the iconic monster first appeared in 1933, in the granddaddy of all SFX blockbusters. Sure, we can look at the 80-plus year old effects today and chuckle at their primitiveness, but when you consider the era that the film was made in, it was a major FX breakthrough. As Roger Ebert noted, “It achieved a sophistication and beauty that eclipsed anything that went before”. In fact it was such an important accomplishment in film history, it’s become a cinematic influence of the modern sci-fi epic. Whether it’s the Motion capture artistry of Gollum and the Hulk, or the kinetic mayhem of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, the roots of the modern high-concept creature FX flick can be traced back to King Kong.
The stop-motion special effects were created by visual pioneer Willis O’Brien, who would also become a mentor for FX legend Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen would go on to create the visuals for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, (1953) which was the inspiration for Gojira—AKA Godzilla: King of the Monsters—which ignited the giant monster craze of the 1950s/60, which was the motivation for modern movies like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim and Jurassic World. As Ebert wrote in his book, “It’s simple to observe that this low-rent monster movie pointed the way towards the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction and non-stop shocks.”
When you look at modern films like the Avengers: Age of Ultron, which combine CGI, motion capture, pyro and stunt work to create a mass of almost non-stop visuals, the roots of that can be traced to Kong, which—again to quote Ebert—“Plunders every trick in the book to create it’s illusions; using live action, back projection, stop-motion animation, miniatures, models, matte paintings and sleight-of-hand. It’s not stingy with the special effects.”
King Kong, like many modern films, keeps the action quotient steady throughout the film. While Kong starts off a bit talky, that soon changes. (Quoting Ebert once more) “From the moment Kong appears on screen, the movie essentially never stops for a breath. In an outpouring of creative energy, O’Brien and his collaborators show Kong in battle with three dinosaurs; a giant snake, a flying reptile and a tyrannosaurus rex. Later, he will terrorize New York, climb to the top of the Empire State Building and bat down biplanes with his bare hands.”
At the time, the movie grossed $6,206,460, which was an impressive intake 80 years ago, at a time when ticket prices were 35 cents. (It doesn’t sound like much now, but put it in perspective. The average salary during the depression was less than $50 per week.) King Kong was made for $600,000. This made King Kong highly profitable, which is why it’s the original special effects blockbuster.
And now we come to Star Wars. It’s also been 10 years since the last entry in George Lucas’ star-spanning adventure series (Revenge of the Sith.) Unlike Kong, the franchise is still going strong today, with the Force Awakens set to debut soon and other films in the series slated for production over the next few years. Certainly, it can’t be argued that Star Wars is more relevant today in terms of having a continued presence, both on screen, in new multi-media projects and in merchandizing.
Ebert wrote, “In one way or another, big studios have been trying to make another Star Wars ever since.” If you look at the years immediately following Star Wars, you’ll see an indisputable trend, with films such as Star Crash, Battle Beyond the Stars and Battlestar Galactica. But even after the rip-off period faded, the influence of Star Wars remained. The multiple FX awards won by Star Wars changed the face of the film industry with the ascendance of Industrial Light & Magic as the new benchmark for SFX. With Star Wars, the wizards who would soon become ILM “combined a new generation of special effects with the high energy action picture; it linked space opera and soap opera, fairy tales and legends, and packaged them as a wild visual ride.” (Ebert again)
There had been big budget space films before Star Wars, most notably Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, but Star Wars went one step beyond, by combining more fantastic elements while also plundering images of the past (Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon was based on the old WW2 bombers with their hand-operated gun ports; and the Jedi were inspired by the Samurai films of Akira Kurasawa). Where Kubrick’s film tried to maintain a level of realism, Star Wars just tried to be entertaining, adding touches that may not have made much logical sense but caused the action to be more fun.
We can’t just focus on the ships and guns. The overall look of the films is spectacular. As Ebert pointed out, “The planet-scapes are startlingly beautiful and owe something to Chesley Bonestell’s imaginary drawings of other worlds.” Star Wars was also the first film to ever pan the camera across a star field. Film critic Mark R. Leeper wrote, “Space scenes had always been done with a fixed camera, and for a very good reason. It was more economical not to create a background of stars big enough to pan through.”
The proof of how ahead-of-their-time the Star Wars effects were is illustrated by the ‘Special Edition’ where Lucas unnecessarily adds newer—supposedly “better”—footage to the first trilogy. Quoting old Roger once again, who wrote, “If the changes are not obvious, that’s because Star Wars got the look of the film so right in the first place”.
Ebert credits Star Wars with having “effectively brought an end to the golden era of early 1970s personal filmmaking and focused the industry on the big-budget special effects blockbusters, blasting off a trend we are still living through. But you can’t blame it for what it did. You can only observe how well it did it.” It’s funny in retrospect that Lucas actually had to pay a fine to the Director’s guild for his breaking of convention, with some of his unprecedented visuals, which today are the foundation for modern FX.
Filmmaking is sort of a chain reaction; a year-to-year evolution, building on what has gone before. Which of these two started the ball rolling for the modern FX blockbuster of today? A monster movie about a giant ape who battles dinosaurs and carries a pretty blonde woman up a skyscraper, only to be shot down in a melancholy finale; or a spacefaring adventure about outmatched rebels challenging an evil galactic Empire and winning by learning the philosophy of the Force. The modern film industry, which is dominated by big special effects, would likely be very different today if not for the pioneering work done on King Kong eight decades ago and Star Wars less than 40 years ago.
Which of these two films do you think was more important in setting the table for the modern era of movie blockbusters?