It was a blessing and a curse to have recently seen KING KONG, that ole big daddy of all kaiju flicks, before heading out to see Hollywood’s latest try at the Eighth Wonder of the World, KONG: SKULL ISLAND. A blessing, because while we still have a ways to go, it’s nice to see in these often depressing times how far popular sentiment has gotten towards pretty much anything that’s not white America. A curse because, well, how are you gonna measure up to one of the greatest movies of all time? An unfair comparison that – do not worry, dear reader – I will not be trotting out throughout our whole damned piece.
I liked KONG: SKULL ISLAND quite a bit! In what appears to be the Kultural Kong narrative’s cyclical nature, it’s back to the 70s for our big ape after our last venture (heh) to the island went all the way back to the thirties in Peter Jackson’s 2005 homage to Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s original. I’m sure director Jordan Voght-Roberts didn’t intentionally mean to evoke the oft-ridiculed Dino de Laurentiis produced 1976 version, but it is striking that (non-sequel, American) Kong always seems to go 30s, 70s, 30s, 70s. I suppose that in our ultra-connected world it seems a stretch to ask of audiences that a place like Skull Island and its giant denizens could exist without it being public knowledge, and the most recent version was already set in the 30s so… For my money, the period setting was a winning gamble. After a rousing WWII Pacific Theatre pre-title sequence, we move to 1973 and the “strategic retreat” of the Vietnam war. What’s that, you say? That’s a whole lotta war for a big monster movie? Why, yes it is, and the movie’s all the better for it.
Rather than immerse us into a strange world of government cover-ups, monster sightings and cryptozoological ephemera like Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND uses its credits to give a little history lesson, to remind numbskull (island) 2017 viewers what was happening in the world in 1973. To be fair, I am exactly such a numbskull, because I don’t know if I’d ever heard of the LANDSAT program, where satellites started mapping the entirety of our globe for the first time. It’s a nice twist on the classic “Hey some drunk put a map in my hands let’s mount an expedition” reason for the journey to the island. There’s an inevitability to this particular discovery of Skull Island that I appreciated; the stormcloud-encircled legend is not discovered here by the entrepreneurial spirit/hubris of one man (the original’s Carl Denham), it is mankind itself that is simply growing too big for its breeches. And speaking of growing too big for one's breeches, we haven’t even talked about thu main man himself yet… Travis?
Ah yes, the King himself. If there's one thing people seem to agree on concerning SKULL ISLAND, it's that this version of Kong is a lean, mean fighting machine that's a joy to watch. His personality is basically the same from previous versions: a tender soul that can be provoked to great violence. The main difference is that SKULL ISLAND gives him a background, and it's a TRAGIC HERO ORIGIN! And you can't have a tragic hero origin without the TRAGIC DEATH OF PARENTS! As Hank Marlow (a WWI pilot who crash landed on the island years ago played by John C. Reilly) explains, Kong is an adolescent belonging to a family of gigantic apes who maintained the peaceful balance of Skull Island by keeping the nasty creatures known as Skullcrawlers at bay. Unfortunately, Kong's parents were TRAGICALLY KILLED by the giant Skullcrawlers, and he remains as the sole guardian. Because of this loneliness, we're treated to a few interesting scenes of him going about his day when not he's not punching something. He eats a big ol' octopus for lunch; he helps lift a log off a trapped buffalo; he even ends his night by staring at the colorful display of the northern lights. Of course, you didn't come to see this flick for ape introspection. You want to see him smash shit up! And boy howdy, he does! Helicopters! Smashed! Humans! Smashed! Skullcrawlers! Smashed! Monster movie fans will definitely not be disappointed by the rowdiness of Kong's fists vs. everything on Skull Island. Plus, if you didn't like 2014's GODZILLA holding back its title monster until the hour mark, don't worry! Within the first thirty minutes of KONG: SKULL ISLAND, we've reached Skull Island, and Kong is already on the scene in full glory.
Now that we've mentioned it, since GODZILLA and SKULL ISLAND now exist in the same MonsterVerse (Legendary Pictures' cinematic universe franchise featuring all kinds of kaiju), we must compare the two of them. The biggest difference is certainly the monster factor, and it feels like the filmmakers must have taken some of the criticisms of GODZILLA to heart when making this movie. Like I mentioned, our hero is introduced in the first half hour, and it's an exciting sequence of Kong knocking down helicopters. Compared to GODZILLA where G first meets the male MUTO in Hawaii, only for the fight to be glimpsed as news footage on TV, you can see where SKULL ISLAND barrels through the action while GODZILLA holds back until the climatic third act. In fact, after the helicopter attack, the movie really doesn't let up its pace and breathlessly throws monster set piece after monster set piece at the audience. Didn't like that GODZILLA only had G and the two MUTOs? Well, this island's full of spiders and stick bugs and vulture/lizard thingies and buffalo and octipi and Skullcrawlers and Kong and what a monster island this is! No wonder the story features an army squadron, because otherwise they'd run out of victims to get picked off! Perhaps though, the movie moves a little too fast. The second and third acts get especially montage heavy, and the human characters (with the exception of the eccentric Marlow) don't really have breathing room to develop. The movie's priorities are to thrust you into the action as soon as possible, and it's definitely a roller coaster trip. The numerous monster scenes are incredibly fun, but it might've been at the expense of everything else. Is that approach better or worse than the restrained nature of GODZILLA? Your mileage and kaiju tastes may vary.
But my kaiju tastes were salivating at the very end though! Like most audiences knowledgeable in cinematic universes, we've been trained to sit and wait for an end credits scene to tantalize us of future installments to come. For SKULL ISLAND, its connection to the MonsterVerse and GODZILLA is made clear when Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Mason (Brie Larson) are shown archived footage of cave paintings discovered by the Monarch group. And who do we see etched into the walls as monstrous outlines? Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah! Wooo! And then it cuts to black with dat Godzilla roar! Woooooooooooo! Holy crippity crap, that's an exciting confirmation that G will not only be back, but that he's bringing his old compadres along too! Yay! Funny enough, we laughed at the notion brought up in GODZILLA that creatures just dug into the Earth's crust and hid for millions of years as they were mutated by radiation, yet SKULL ISLAND actually doubles down on the idea. It's geologist Houston (Corey Hawkins) that tells us of the idea of the “hollow earth” where our world contains a large spacious interior instead of thousands of layers of material. In reality, this was an actual hypothesis held in regard by scientists for years until the 18th century, yet writers have continued to use this idea as the basis for many stories from Jules Verne's classic novel JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH to the modern day video game series GEARS OF WAR. I guess if you want to do some world building, sometimes you have to look deep inside and discover..... how empty it is? Help me out here, Luca.
Yeah, sure! You see, when a man goes off to war… he finds something in himself… and he cannot go home until he knows what that is… but if you don’t, then… you… stay… at war? Look, I dunno, man, that’s what John Goodman’s Monarch scientist Bill Randa tells Conrad when they go dig him up in some Vietnam opium den. The character is weirdly set up as this man who seen some shit in the bush, who doesn’t dare go home because of what he has found out about himself or realized about humanity, and then… he is a perfectly well-adjusted and capable rational adult throughout the whole film? I swear, it’s like they forgot to actually write in a pay-off for that setup! Mason Weaver is an anti-war photographer who goes along because she is suspicious that this Landsat mapping mission is actually a covert military op and she wants to be IN THE SHIT. She’s kinda right but also not? Look, frankly we need a blonde on Skull Island as is tradition… Next to John C. Reilly’s Marlowe, Samuel L. Jackson’s colonel Preston Packard (what a comic book name!) is the one with the most clearly defined set of goals. “Do we get to winnnn this time, sir?” as John J. Rambo said in 1985. Well, maybe not if your opponent is the gawwwd king of Skull Island!
Sam does a decent job as the Ahab of Skull Island, but amid all this heavy symbolism we are beaten over the head with like a boat’s propeller, something felt a little bit off. Skull Island is revealed due to the inexorable rise of man, his overreach into a world that was not his! Oh merciless hubris! If you rub this theme against a Vietnam setting, aka the most classic example of American overreach of the 20th century, then… well… loath am I to take a paycheck away from a black man, but… here’s one rare instance where I feel like a white dude would have been more appropriate for the story being told. And apparently, this was the case originally, as scheduling conflicts pushed the original Packard actor, JK Simmons, out of the movie. In fact, for more cohesion, I suggest Weaver’s arc should have been combined up with Conrad’s: the tracker who’s seen some beastly shit out in the field, but regains his humanity after making a connection with the noble soul that is Kong. I mean, this kinda writes out Brie Larson, but hey, there were female USMC colonels and Navy Admirals in 1973 so maybe this is Hiddleston getting written out hmmmmm?
If I’m sounding like I’m fairly critical of the movie, it’s because something caught my eye (ear) during Kong’s full introduction that you already mentioned, Travis. As he swats down some of the last remaining helicopters our heroes brought to the island, Kong is separated from the soldiers by a napalm-induced wall of flame. As a gust of wind separates the fires, our Ahab and his white whale come face to face in a moment that is expertly set up by Jordan Voght-Roberts – man and beast, locked in deadly confrontation, setting off down a path only one will return from. All sound is reduced to a background humming, Sam Jackson and the good people at ILM/Kong squint at each other, hellfire blazing in their eyes, and the music… barely registers. This is such a modern blockbuster complaint – I found myself sighing during a screening of LOGAN over this very matter but two weeks earlier – that I found my mood dampened substantially. Unfair to the film, perhaps, as I still ended up enjoying it well enough due to its energetic pacing, great effects and the good cheer it exuded, but hey, feelings is feelings! If you’re going to make such an effort of simultaneously connecting yourself with GODZILLA story-wise but refuting its (self)seriousness tone-wise, you’re also going to draw some comparisons to Alexandre Desplat’s solid work on the G-Man’s musical identity. Hmmm those taiko drums and urgent strings… Did you have any misgivings at all, Travis?
Going back to something I said earlier, SKULL ISLAND certainly has a brisk pace. For the most part, this works in the movie's favor, as we're never bored as soon as the characters reach monster territory. It's one kaiju set piece after another; no SIMPSONS-esque “when are they getting to the fireworks factory” complaints here! One way the action speeds along is that the second and third acts use many montages of our heroes (human and ape) walking and surviving in between those “firework” scenes. It mostly works, yet when we get to the third montage of such stuff, it feels like the filmmakers could've cut it out or even maybe let the individual scenes play out and breath a little more. For instance, one of the montages cuts between the three separated groups (Hiddleston & company, Jackson & his squad, Kong) as they watch the Northern Lights in the night sky. It lasts about a minute, and the goal of it is to show a humane side of Kong as he shows the same wonderment of the brilliant light display as the humans. But it cuts away from him a little too briefly for my tastes. We do get the point of it, but perhaps allowing the montage another minute or so for our characters to admire and unknowingly bond over this natural phenomena would've made it sink in deeper than simply prove a point.
Still, despite those faults, SKULL ISLAND is a rollicking good time that bodes well for the future of the MonsterVerse. It didn't occur to until reflecting on the movie that it does a good amount of table setting for its cinematic universe. In this film alone, we see the first expansion of Monarch, the introduction of Kong, the explanation of where the monsters come from, acknowledgments of GODZILLA, and a flat-out viral teaser of GODZILLA 2. And it never feels extraneous! One complaint fans of superhero movies often have is that many of the cinematic universe connected films feature so much set up for future installments that it comes to detriment of the individual film. From IRON MAN 2 to BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, fanboys like continuity but not at the cost of quality storytelling. Amazingly, SKULL ISLAND does even more world building than GODZILLA, yet it doesn't detract from simply being a fun kaiju flick. If the King of the Monsters proved that kaiju can still mean big business, then the Eight Wonder of the World showed that they're here to stay. Long live the Kings!