So King Kong has returned to our screens with Kong: Skull Island from Legendary Pictures, as part of their new ‘Monsterverse’ franchise - tying in 2014’s reboot of Godzilla as well as the future releases of Gozilla: King of Monsters (due 2019) and Godzilla vs Kong (due 2020).
For that reason, the comparison to the recent Godzilla movie is inevitable, as they are now part of a shared universe, not to mention being scheduled to duke it out one day.
Whilst Godzilla the monster himself was notoriously camera shy in his 2014 feature (right up until the end of the film anyway), in Kong they have no problem in proudly displaying the titular ape – making an appearance in the first scene! Overall the tone is a bit more playful and less grounded in Kong than Godzilla – and seems to be having more fun with the more fantastical elements - though at times it does veer dangerously from comedy to faux-seriousness (dramatic slow-mo shots and extended scenes of staring competitions) almost too wantonly.
It's interesting how these kinds of movies are usually split into two major components. The monster itself (obviously) but also the human element; in this case, a group of scientists and military personnel that go searching for the mythical ‘Skull Island’.
So lets start with number one: Kong himself. His increase in size (to match-up to Godzilla a bit more) means that he is bigger than we’ve ever seen him before – which makes him all the more of a terrifying force for it. His first proper scene (with the military choppers) sees him wreak havoc to a level in which you think ‘ – damn they made him a proper villain in this one!’ (which admittedly would have been an interesting and different approach to take) – but then the inevitable goodness of Kong starts to filter through later; i.e. he’s misunderstood, he’s just protecting his territory, it’s ok because he’s actually defending us from other worse monsters etc… It's a narrative necessity really, so that’s fine. And once again, this mirrors Godzilla’s representation in his movie – at first as an unknown potential threat, but then later revealed to be the hero that the humans actually depend on.
The best moments of the film are when we get to see Kong in action, especially when up against other giant beasties. The CG work is stellar here, with long takes and little to no hiding in the dark, heavy rain or thick smoke for the majority of the action. The fighting feels suitably weighty too, calling to mind the hulking Kaiju brawls of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim.
The period setting was also great - a fresh 70’s vibe that also allows for the legitimate use of a rock soundtrack from that era. Granted, it can feel like a bit of a pastiche at times but it allows the film to play fast and loose with some of its cheesiness, one further example of which being plenty of ‘overtly cinematic’ yet beautiful shots (like Kong etched against the setting sun surrounded by choppers in slow motion - homaging Apocalypse Now), which fits the mood and fantastical tone well.
There are plenty of callbacks and easter eggs stuffed in there for Kong fans too. Brie Larson briefly acting as the Ann Darrow surrogate laying in Kong’s palm, the teased almost-snapping of a creature’s jaw, Kong fighting a giant octopus – it’s all familiar stuff but refreshingly bombastic and a hell of a lot of fun.
Now to address the much weaker portion of the movie: the human component. First off, there are way too many characters. At one point they get split up on the island and there are three groups to keep track of at once. The assembled cast is amazing on paper, but the lack of development or fleshing out for most contributes greatly to their collective downfall. John Goodman – wasted. Toby Kebbel – wasted (reduced to a plot point). We get to see Eazy-E and Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins) from Straight Outta Compton re-united! One is a marine now, the other a science nerd – both seemingly there just to add comedy and not much else. Even worse – the Chinese casting (let me take a cynical guess – she is a famous actress/popstar in China and is there just to boost the film’s profile in the increasingly lucrative Asian market?) literally adds nothing to the film apart from vague hints at being a possible love interest for Dr. Dre.
But by far the most squandered are the two supposed main ‘leads’. Brie Larson is given an almost thankless role – it’s amazing how many times the film cuts to her face just to get a reaction shot and not much else. This is an Oscar winning actress remember (see how easily she squeezes out that tear at the end!) It's a shame she isn’t given much to do at all, except point a camera at something once in a while. It's quite clear that they didnt want to make her just another damsel in distress or a love interest (which is commendable) but in lieu of that we are left with a largely blank slate.
And Tom Hiddleston – oh dear. Ex-British Special Forces? Please. It feels quite awkward how they tan him up, get him to walk around with his arms in an unnaturally wide position and frequently have him roll up his sleeves to show off a bit of bicep when he’s holding a rifle. Though he's never really suited to being an action star (horrendously miscast in this film in my opinion), it doesn't help that the character itself is paper thin and has nothing to do except the odd bit of running and shooting here and there. I can’t recall a time in recent memory that a supposed leading man or obvious ‘hero’ role in a movie has been so utterly ineffectual.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but perhaps that was the whole point the filmmakers were trying to make – to show that the best we can muster from us humans pales into significance before the mighty majesty that is Kong! I doubt the writers were being that smart though.
So the human characters were largely dissapointing in this (a similar criticism also levelled against the 2014 Godzilla movie). There are, however, two exceptions to this in Kong.
Firstly, is John C Reilly. He’s actually given a character in this – the way he acts and things he says reflect his past and what he’s been through. He gets to be endearingly funny (not just a wise-cracking sidekick) and have a nice emotional pay-off at the end of it all.
Secondly, Samuel L Jackson. Sure, he’s playing the badass that he routinely pulls off with ease in so many of the roles he takes days, but his character also has a fleshed out past and we get a view into his disturbed psyche - what gives him his purpose and motivation. There are plenty of references to the Vietnam War and how he feels that he still has unfinished business – a war out there that’s left unwon. Like one of the characters says: ‘people don't come back from war’.
His first staring contest with Kong is suitably epic and marks the start of the gradual role switch between himself and Kong. What appears to be set up as the ‘Heroic warrior vs Villain’, gradually revealing itself to be in fact the opposite as the film progresses.
With the notable exception of these two characters, the film often stumbles with its human cast – only really getting exciting when they are being assailed by the next giant monster to rear its head. When Kong himself is up on the screen the film really shines – and tends to suffer when he is not. So at least they got it half right (arguably the more important part?)
All in all, Kong: Skull Island feels different from what’s come before – it’s a fun action romp (with some great set pieces and even the occasional jump scare!), and is especially great when we get to see the big ape doing his thing - so it’s interesting to see how exactly this is all going to mesh with the more serious feeling of Godzilla. Will it end up being an epic battle for the ages? Or a disappointing butting of heads much like last year’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice?
I’ll guess we’ll have to wait and see.
20th March 2017