MAD: Kong: Skull Island
Over the next few days I will be putting out articles on the first three King Kong movies (33/76/05) for comparison. This one is better than two of them, for me. There is also an upcoming podcast Sharon and I recorded where we talk about all of them. The following is pretty spoiler-free, aside from clarifying what you might already have suspected from the trailers.
RKO hiked the ball to Paramount, who kicked it to Universal, now Warner takes possession and starts to run as far as they can with it.
“Everybody knows that the group who went into Skull Island to search for oil or chocolate or whatever else it wanted brought home King Kong and he died in New York, what my film pre-supposes is… maybe they didn’t.”
So you’re Warner, you’ve had moderate success with a Godzilla reboot, your DC franchise is a laughing stock that you are becoming increasingly embarrassed having to claim that everything is fine with, and more than ever you want to make a cinematic universe to rival Disney and their pair of epic moneymakers. Over at Universal their Monsters franchise keeps getting almost started with Dawn of I, Dracula Begins and Suddenly 300 or whatever it is Luke Evans blandly flew through in a hailstorm of CGI pipistrelles, and doubtless the Mummy Reboot will find the success they want there, what with Tom Cruise and his scream meme.
But you need a King Kong to fight your Godzilla and your Mothra and your King Ghidorah, and how can he do that if he’s already dead? Pancaked on the New York sidewalk like the flattened dreams of the Underworld/Frankenstein Rises crossover we have all been clamouring for. How do we bring the world King Kong in a different way without just filming two thirds of the King Kong story they filmed three times already and just skipping the third act?
This was the question asked of a Warner Brothers studios think tank half an hour before their lunch break some years ago. It looks like they went to lunch early that day.
My scathing observations of artistic pursuits being curtailed by profiteering opportunism aside, this is basically a super stylish, high budget, extremely well shot remake of the ’76 King Kong without the kidnapping and with Denham’s obsession with making a film switched to a leader’s murderous vendetta against the ape that killed his companions that forms the central conflict.
Since this takes place at the end of the Vietnam war it assumes the form of a vividly realised period piece which moves along at a whip quick pace from one smartly realised establishing scene of engaging, fun characters to the next with the kind of fervour I recognise from the original Jurassic Park, and since I expected this to be a boneheaded Jurassic World type blockbuster and Spielberg’s original is one of my favourite movies of all time that is praise indeed.
Once the stellar cast of Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and their buddies are actually at Skull Island though, the pace changes from Jurassic Park and its slow reveals of the dinosaurs to that bit in Aliens where the marines wander into the nest and all hell breaks loose. It sustains this chaos for a long stretch and I realised that there had been little time allowed for tension or build up, which changes the shape of this as a classic creature feature. This is an unveiling and as soon as they are within range, Kong makes his immediate, towering entrance and viciously defends his territory.
Then it’s two parties wandering the jungle, meeting natives (who are unusually sensitively depicted whilst still remaining dangerous) and the Ben Gunn castaway from the World War II military, John C. Reilly, who becomes the surprise heart of the movie. He knows the island, knows the natives, knows Kong and can explain things, but with the affable enthusiasm of a farmboy rather than a jaded lunatic like Lawrence Fishbourne in Predators. They go to lengths to show that his 1945 adversary, a Japanese Zero pilot, became his closest friend, breaking down cultural barriers for shared survival. Against the backdrop of Vietnam, one of America’s most regrettable conflicts, and with its multi-ethnic cast, the key tenets appear to be the benefits of working together without anger clouding the issue, and that you often don’t have an enemy until you go looking for one.
The strongest elements of the film are the little details, the weakest are the overall structure. The pacing does not allow you to build apprehension which makes it feel like a showcase, the conclusions are “Kong is a badass. It’s good to see him fight.” There are a dozen or more characters, we don’t get to focus on any of them, despite the fact that they’re all interesting, and at least two very talented actors get taken out suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving me very aware of the creative decision to do so, which took me out of the story rather than leaving me upset at their deaths. Nobody grows or learns anything and the survivors depart in a way that makes plain that all this was what what you thought it was going to be, a retelling of King Kong without the personal connection that would thus leave Kong alive to fight a giant moth in 2021.
The ape is far less impressive than Serkis’ version, proving once again that bigger doesn’t equate to better. He has little to do other than roam his island fighting big things, but when he is in repose, Ape-experienced performance capture veterans Terry Notary and Toby Kebble (who also features in human form), give him a thoughtfulness that excels beyond the limitations of the project. The Skullcrawlers that constitute the main baddies this time are just as uninspired as the radioactive bugs in Godzilla, and are roughly on par with that thing in After Earth. They do not resemble anything we know to be real and just seem like hastily thought out CG mid-level bosses again. I refuse to believe that monster creation has fallen so far that this and the iRex are all they can come up with.
The problem is, when Kong does eventually square off against Godzilla… what even IS that in terms of a fight? They can’t talk! Their goals are simple. Their ideologies are the same: “Leave me alone”. Frankly I already have doubts about Hulk vs Thor Round 2. There is literally no chance of a Civil War style conflict involving Kaiju if the Kaiju are the stars, and I don’t know what Universal are expecting from this. We’ve seen the ape kick ass, we’ve seen Godzilla do the same. Frankly a good video editor could splice the two movie throwdowns together and save them the money and everyone a lot of effort in justifying what barely worked in Japan in the 60s.