‘Twas beauty killed the—what’s that. He’s still alive? Oh… well never mind then.
by Thom Yee
So, I’ve never actually seen the original King Kong, not all the way through or all in one sitting at least. That’s not something I regret either despite being ‘the movie guy’ in my group of friends and despite being a person who prides himself on his knowledge of movie history. It may ultimately be a failing on my part, but I just don’t have a great deal of patience when it comes to the classics, and, as has been the case with Citizen Kane, The Graduate, or Scarface, I doubt that I’m going to see the original King Kong anytime soon. I’ve seen parts of it of course, the same way we’ve all watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory, pressed the wrong floor in a cramped elevator, or eaten at Subway, but there was never any intentionality behind those viewings, so while I have a pretty good idea of what the movie was about, I don’t really know what people see in it. But I have seen the 2014 Godzilla.
Beyond the obvious (it’s a monster movie), the first thing you should know about Kong: Skull Island, the 2017 iteration of the venerable giant monkey (three words I intentionally put together that way because it sounds funny), is that, like just about all of today’s major movie releases, it’s not meant to be a standalone piece, at least not in the sense that the 1933 original was meant to stand alone. Alongside the 2014 Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is one of the first steps in Warner Bros.’ “MonsterVerse” franchise, produced by the Chinese-owned Legendary Entertainment and in partnership with the Japanese-owned Toho, that will eventually… see a big fight with Godzilla and King Kong I guess.
If we’re being honest, it all sounds kind of stupid and more than a little tired, especially against the extended/expanded/continuing universes that form the backdrop of our current cinematic experience, but if we’re choosing to be that genuinely honest and reflective, we may as well go ahead and admit that most movies (and stories) are about people fighting each other. I think it’s just all gotten to be a bit too literal lately. I should add that I am, nevertheless, a huge, unabashed, and vocal fan of the 2014 Godzilla, so in that sense Kong: Skull Island had a lot to live up to. On the other hand, I do see a lot of new movies, more than 50 a year at this point, so me going to see Kong: Skull Island was probably something that would have happened even without those ties.
What’s it about?
In a post-Vietnam-War 1973, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) receives clearance to lead a team to the fabled “Skull Island”, recruiting geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and biologist San Lin (Jing Tian) and enlisting the aid of former British SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), United States Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larsson), and a whole bunch of other soldiers, scientists, various hangers-on and otherwise redshirt cannon fodder types to chart the island and find proof of the existence of the forgotten monsters that he believes dwell there.
One thing that really stood out to me while watching Kong: Skull Island is what a crazy, verging-on-insane cast was assembled to tell this story, and I think the moment that became crystal clear and I started to actively notice how many truly noteworthy actors are in the movie was when I realized that both Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) were going along on this adventure that would now include almost half of the main cast of Straight Outta Compton. In Kong we have veteran, celebrity-level actors like Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly, more recent breakout stars like Brie Larsson and Tom Hiddleston, personal favourites like Toby Kebbel and John Ortiz, and even character actors I’ve started to notice all over the place like Shea Whigham. All of those names in Kong also mean that, besides Straight Outta Compton’s Dre and Eazy, the movie has current and future MCU characters in Nick Fury (Jackson), Rhomann Dey (Reilly), Captain Marvel (Larson), Loki (Hiddleston), and Chief Roger Dooley (Whigham); Fast and Furious characters with Agent Stasiak (Whigham) and the villainous Braga (Ortiz); and even a reunion of actors from The Gambler with Goodman’s Frank and Larson’s Amy, though to be fair, I’m mostly mentioning that last one because it had Goodman and Larson starring alongside Hollywood royalty Jessica Lange, who, you might remember, starred in 1976’s King Kong. While all of that interconnectivity might speak to the franchised nature of today’s biggest movies, Kong: Skull Island is one of the few movies in recent memory that made me think about all of these different connections.
On the same topic of movie franchising, as poor a fit as King Kong and Godzilla might at first seem, with the former a freak of nature who’s stuck largely to his own self-contained movies and the latter the monstrous culmination of our mutated nuclear paranoia whose adventures stretched out to a seeming never-ending list of sequels, reboots, iterations, and eras, there actually exists a precedent for the two together in Japanese theatres with Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962 and King Kong Escapes in 1967. So in a way, the Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse is just America’s way of taking the monsters back. I don’t know if thinking about these two kings of the monsters franchises in that way makes the current expanded-universe-centric builds of them more palatable, but if you thought this was going to be the first time the two would meet, rest assured that, as with most things we care about, they got it in Japan way before we did.
Is it any good?
There were several times when I felt genuine excitement watching Kong: Skull Island, a few times when I thought that it could even take the crown of best movie of the year (at least so far, in the first two-and-a-half months of 2017), and overall there were many times where I was actually very glad that I chose to see the movie despite the cold and snow of that particular Friday, March 10th, here in Edmonton. But it’s hard to say that Kong: Skull Island is actually a good movie so much as it’s merely good enough.
On the bright side, it’s almost impossible to deny this movie’s entertainment value, especially if you’re the type of person who likes to see humans being gored, maimed, and eaten by giant monsters. On that front, Kong: Skull Island succeeds in a way that a movie like the 2014 Godzilla utterly failed, offering up fast, furious, and varied giant monster action as soon as it can and at a near-perfect clip. Kong is a force of nature for his sheer scale against all of the puny humans and for his raw physicality. The movie not only sells you on the brutality of Kong and the world he lives in but skirts right up next to the edge of meta commentary with some of the conquering, calculated, and almost practiced look of some of his fighting moves as you watch him engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Skullcrawlers, the main monster bad guys of Skull Island. On that same meta level, the choice of a post-Vietnam-era setting allows for a striking directorial style that even those of us who haven’t seen the movie’s visual inspirations would recognize as being important. There’s a simple matter of factness to the movie that’s almost the complete opposite of its 2014 Godzilla predecessor, and if you just want a movie that’s fun to look at and gives you all of the monster thrills you expect of movies like this, you won’t be disappointed.
But I was a little disappointed. I do want a little bit more from these movies no matter what their apparent subject matter. And I am a big fan of the 2014 Godzilla. In a direct comparison, it’s easy to see how Kong: Skull Island might stand out as superior and almost a direct response to Godzilla, but what Kong offers in fast, brutal thrills, it loses in things like restraint and care. To be clear, I’m not at all suggesting that the movie’s rendered poorly or done badly, it’s simply missing that something extra that makes us think about movies long after we’ve seen them. There’s a reason you rarely ever fully see the shark in Jaws or the xenomorph in Alien, and it’s not just because those movies lacked the budgets or the visual effects of today’s features, it’s because you have to leave a little bit to the imagination, you have to allow that sense of dread and terror to creep upward and inward before you let the monsters go crazy, because if you don’t, there’s nothing much to consider. Many viewers felt the 2014 Godzilla went overboard in its deliberate cuts away from the main monster, but to me, it was a perfect balance that allowed the movie to build and keep building to a point that made the final boss battles really count. In Kong, there’s just a lot of stuff going on, and it’s hard to really care about any of it beyond the pure spectacle, especially considering how little development we get with any of the movie’s human characters.
Usually the attempt at morality in monster movies tends towards the question of who the real monsters really are — us, the humans, or them, the monsters — and whether it’s the man-should-not-play-God genetic nightmares of a Jurassic Park, the man-should-not-have-such-power nuclear nightmares of a Godzilla, or the man-should-leave-nature-alone righteousness of a King Kong, the general principles at play almost always lean towards us being wrong, and it’s no different in Kong: Skull Island. The inciting theory behind the movie may be exploring the mysterious island and learning about its forgotten denizens with John Goodman’s Agent Randa on behalf of the Monarch organization (sort of the S.H.I.E.L.D. of the MonsterVerse), butthe inciting incident that drives most of the movie’s major events is our intrepid group’s first encounter with the towering beast, a massacre as Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel James Conrad’s loses most of those under his command at the hands of Kong, in this movie physically grown all the way up to sizes that would rival buildings rather than being forced to climb them. John Goodman is not only the type of actor who could take this type of movie over through sheer screen presence but he’s also the type of actor we usually want to do that because he’s just that good, but instead we shift our attention away from Goodman’s investigations of these forgotten beasts in favour of the revenge flick that Samuel L. Jackson’s character represents, and the movie is all the poorer for it. There is a deeper level to the movie’s narrative, the idea of a men at war looking for something and perhaps never finding it, but as much as that’s suggested with Jackson’s character, it’s never really explored as the movie takes us from one predictable point to the next as the colonel uses the deaths of his men to justify his own pettiness.
It may be unfair to expect surprises when it comes to gigantic, studio-backed, franchise-building motion pictures, but it would be nice to not know exactly where things are going most of the time, and the only thing that really caught me by surprise in Kong was how quickly it loses track of its potentially more nuanced characters. As little screen time as Bryan Cranston’s character got in Godzilla, at least he was allowed to make an impression in that movie, but none of Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman (all actors you expect to have things to do) ever really get the chance to be more no matter how much or little screen time they’re given. I do have to admit though that John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, a man lost on the island for the last thirty years, is a notable exception, and if you look at this movie from his perspective alone, there’s an odd sweetness to the movie that’s surprisingly endearing.
So should I see it?
Along with my likelihood to stop and watch a movie when I unexpectedly run across it on broadcast television, one of the less quantifiable measures of a movie’s value I like to consider is how much I think about it in the days after I’ve first seen it. In the case of Kong: Skull Island, I rarely thought about it and probably wouldn’t have considered it at all if I wasn’t going to later write a review of it. I want to be very clear here that I’m not condemning the movie or even calling it that bad, but make no mistake, it doesn’t exist at a level of deep contemplation. It’s a spectacle movie directed very well when it comes to action and it’s certainly not only the type of pure superficiality in actual bad movies. It’s not dumb, but it chooses not to be smart in a way that feels calculated and deliberate, a way that almost suggests the producers learned from 2014’s Godzilla that people don’t like things like careful storytelling, heavy morality, or restraint when it comes to big monster movies. In a way, it kind of feels like the type of movie most of us would’ve made, with a bunch of unambiguously cool stuff happening, but all things that clearly were inspired by other works, and then we ran out of time and/or patience to add in any real substance because it’s already exhausting enough to put together a blockbuster franchise movie with hundreds of people on the payroll, and most people don’t like when movies have deeper meanings anyway.
Thom’s Kong: Skull Island final score
On the Edge
- It… it’s still March right? It’s been pretty cold, and it’s been snowing pretty hard for the last week here in Edmonton, and I keep hearing about these blizzards all over the eastern side of the continent, but… it kind of feels like we’re already in the middle of summer movie season doesn’t it? A new Wolverine movie, a new Power Rangers, a failed Matt Damon high-action/fantasy movie and a LEGO Batman movie a few weeks ago, only a few weeks until a new Fast and Furious, and now I’m reviewing a King Kong movie? And all before May?
- If you’re waiting for the post-credits scene, know that it comes at after all of the credits, it felt tacked on, and it really doesn’t tell you much more than yes, this does take place in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla.
- Is it just me or was Mason Weaver a terrible photographer? Take more pictures, Mason, this is all good stuff! Use a wider lens, these are landscape shots, Mason! What’s with your framing, Mason, there’s all kinds of distracting crap in the corners of these shots!
- For the record, I was in love with Brie Larson way before you guys.