When I heard about Kong: Skull Island I thought, Warner Brothers is giving the kaiju genre a reboot. Okay, I’m in. Not that that’s a huge vote of confidence. I mean, who am I, right? Eschewing the self-deprecation, in saying I’m in I was just voicing my decision that I was willing to bet my $10 that Kong: Skull Island was worth 10 bucks. Still, my tastes favor big Hollywood blockbuster films, sometimes against my better judgement (can you say Transformers?). But… the trailer for Kong: Skull Island was intriguing: King Kong vs the US Army circa the Vietnam War. Thing is, quite often trailers are far better than the movies they are promoting.
Ugh. I was flip-flopping more than the summer foot ware. I decided that as long as it has more than the 10 minutes of kaiju—unlike 2014’s flop Godzilla—Kong: Skull Island would likely be worth my money.
Phew! That was unnecessarily difficult.
Then, as I’m walking into the theatre I read a line on the poster that stopped me cold: “From the producers of Godzilla”
Cut to me walking out of the theatre: Kong: Skull Island was pretty good. If nothing else this time around the producers had the good sense to have plenty of the titular character in the movie, thus satisfying my thin requisite for being worth my time and money.
I don’t mean to belittle the movie because it’s a summer popcorn film—as I stated I dig ’em—, but at the same time I have to be honest, it doesn’t take a lot to make a decent big-budget, summer kaiju film. Speaking specifically of the King Kong franchise, here’s all the filmmaker needs: the theme is man’s wanton invasion and destruction of things he doesn’t understand—specifically nature—which turns out to be far more important in the “grand scheme” than imagined; all of which is personified as a giant gorilla. The audience’s sympathy is enhanced when the giant monster is a primate because of familial similarities, most notably the eyes, which like ours gives a glimpse into Kong’s soul. Next, manipulate the audiences’ heartstrings by having mean people either exploit or outright destroy the misunderstood creature. But not all people are bad. Several of the characters, a minority, will identify with Kong the way the audience does, who will “come to the rescue” when all hell breaks loose. The action will ratchet up the tension, but the real suspense will be in the question: will they (the antagonists) learn the lesson before their mistakes take everyone too far?
This is simple, Plot-o-tron 2000 stuff, stuff we know without a trailer, or plot summery, or even the elevator pitch. The reason we go to see it is because we don’t know is how this is going to happen.
So now, the elevator pitch that answers the how this plot will play out: King Kong in Apocalypse Now with Rambo and Moby Dick thrown in for motivation. I went through all the build up because the trailer only gives the King Kong in Apocalypse Now, and it’s the Rambo and Moby Dick that define the new take on the classic story.
It plays out like this: Bill Randa (John Goodman) is a crackpot… something-or-other who is constantly floating ideas about giant monsters around Washington looking for funding to… eradicate them? I never figured out what exactly he does and whom he does it for. We come in medias res leaving a chunk of Randa’s backstory on the cutting room floor which was quite befuddling. Finally he has enough proof, new satellite images of a unknown island, to outfit an expedition. His part in the plot is the smarmy government man who conveniently withholds information that leads to everything falling apart. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is a colonel in the Army, bitter and still looking for a fight, who is withdrawing from Vietnam when he’s offered a side mission, the one spearheaded by Randa. He jumps on the opportunity, bringing the Rambo “I’m gonna win this time” mentality which drives his Ahab like obsession with Kong when the mission goes sideways. Mason Warner (Brie Larson) is an “anti-war” photojournalist who has been embedded with soldiers the past few years. She is the heart that’s desperately lacking in this hopped up machismo—and ultimately she’s the blonde love interest for Kong (the filmmakers are only willing to stray so far to the original). Finally, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is a British special forces agent, retired, who is called in for his specialized skill as a tracker in unfamiliar jungle terrain. Ultimately he is the bridge between the testosterone needed to survive in such a violent environment and the heart and soul which is needed to keep them from destroying everything. Thankfully there is some comic relief by way of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War 2 fighter pilot who was stranded on the island back in 1945.
All together, the parts the characters represent come together to make an entertaining re-envisioning of the King Kong tale. The story takes place entirely on Skull Island, which I found refreshing. The idea of capturing and shipping King Kong to New York for a giant circus show was always bothersome for me. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief knowing that there is no way in hell anyone would actually think that was a good idea, even a caricature of a money-hungry, mustache-twirling villain. Setting up a Jurassic Park, that I can buy, but not a rolling road show.
There are several moments in the film that are eye-rollingly bad, the worst of which being the Kong/Weaver love connection. Thankfully their “thing” is downplayed in Kong: Skull Island. Kong is more of a friend to all mankind (for some unknown reason), but there is a special connection between he and Weaver. Still, it’s taken too far when Kong saves Weaver from drowning during the big boss fight, scooping her up and then placing her ever so softly on the ground. Not only is there no way he could have seen her, but stopping the fight to run to her rescue? Just too unbelievable.
Overall though, it was a fun. It’s not going to win any awards, but it will probably make back the money Warner Brothers put into it. Considering the teaser at the end, which heralds a new batch of kaiju films, I’m excited that there will be more. Kong: Skull Island is reminiscent of the Sunday double creature features I used to watch as a kid, though with much better special effects. I mean, I didn’t once see the zipper in the King Kong suit, and that is saying something. I think.