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Kong: Skull Island

When Godzilla (2014) came out, of course we all knew that the filmmakers wouldn’t be content with simply making it a franchise. This is the 21st century — nothing less than a multi-series superfranchise would suffice. Only trouble is, Godzilla is kinda the face of that franchise. There aren’t many giant monsters out there — in or out of the Godzilla canon — who could headline their own franchise as easily as share the marquee with the King of the Monsters.

Short of trying to make some original kaiju franchises made for the purpose (Because really, wouldn’t that be just CA-RAAAAZY?), there are two immediately available options. The first is to make an American franchise out of some lesser-known Japanese monster, and the second is to find some American monster for the purpose. Given that there’s no word of an American blockbuster for Gamera coming up, I think we all know which one they went with.

Kong occupies a strange place in modern mainstream cinema. Everybody knows about the film and acknowledges its status as a special effects landmark, but the story is dated and the effects are starting to show their age. Moreover, there’s no way for the film to spawn a franchise because… well, Kong dies. That’s probably his most defining moment, the whole reason behind the character. There have been attempts at sequels and spinoffs (he’s even fought Godzilla on at least one occasion), but there’s only so much that can be done without cheapening that iconic moment when Kong is gunned down.

There have been a couple of attempts at remaking the classic story, both of which are uneven at best. The 1976 remake was a commercial smash and it has its fans, but there’s no denying that the film was overtly campy. By contrast, the 2005 remake seemed to take itself way too seriously — a film as overlong and overwrought as any of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, but without the source material to back up such massive ambition. And of course both films were big-budget tentpoles held back with the knowledge that a sequel was impossible. Though that didn’t stop the makers of the 1976 film from trying — a sequel, King Kong Lives, was released in 1986 and immediately shunned as a terrible, terrible mistake.

But those remakes both tried to adapt the story of the 1933 original film, either by setting it in the modern-day or keeping it in period. Kong: Skull Island tries something very different.

The premise begins with Bill Randa (John Goodman), founder of the Monarch company that you’ve probably already forgotten about from Godzilla (2014). His company is just about bankrupt, so he goes to Capitol Hill asking for clearance to conduct one last job: An expedition to Skull Island. This patch of land has only been the stuff of legend, as it’s surrounded 24/7 by crippling storms, but satellite photography has recently confirmed the island’s existence. So Randa and his company want to go exploring the island to find out what value it may hold, especially before anyone else gets the chance.

Naturally, Monarch wants a military escort on this mission. They also hire a tracker (James Conrad, played by Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Mason Weaver, played by Alison Brie). Why all the extra manpower and heavy artillery? Well, to make a long story short (too late!) Randa is convinced that giant monsters exist, and he’s made it his personal mission to go and find them before they wipe out humanity. After a lifetime of searching, he’s going to look for answers and proof on the last remaining speck of uncharted land in all the globe.

Let’s recap. We’ve got a rich white huckster who’s somehow talked his way into leading an expedition to an uncharted island in search of a giant monkey. Moreover, we’ve got a platoon of armed professionals exploring South Pacific territory full of hostile natives, dangerous wildlife, and an ecosystem that clearly doesn’t want anyone down there. Brave men sent out with no real idea of what they’re after, out to die so some asshole can fulfill his own vendetta and/or get rich.

This much has been taken from the original film. And looking at it through this lens, it makes all manner of sense that this reimagining was set in the closing days of the Vietnam War. In point of fact, this movie is the first blockbuster that was ever actually shot in Vietnam.

With very few exceptions, every single character in this film has seen the terrors of war firsthand. A couple of them are veterans from World War II, and Mason has won international acclaim for her anti-war photography on the frontlines. But most of the characters have seen varying degrees of action in Vietnam, which makes them uniquely qualified for the mission. As such, the movie makes a lot of statements about war and PTSD in ways that land effectively. There’s also a lot of material about sticking our troops and WMDs where they don’t belong, which dovetails perfectly with Kong’s central theme about the proliferation of society and destruction of nature.

Something else that this film carries over from the original is this notion that Kong is the last of his species, revered as a god on his island. And while Kong is the most obvious and prominent example, all of the monsters in this picture are given such tremendous weight that we immediately recognize them as forces far beyond our control or understanding. These are quite clearly sentient and powerful creatures unlike any other on Earth. If we confront them, we may risk destroying them, erasing something irreplaceable and (for lack of a better word) magical; or we can simply leave them alone. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts listed Hayao Miyazaki as a prominent influence on the film, and that’s another ingenious choice that meshes perfectly with the source material.

Speaking of Vogt-Roberts, this is only his second film, following a little indie coming-of-age story called The Kings of Summer. The films could not possibly be less alike, except for one crucial regard: The Kings of Summer was permeated with some absolutely gorgeous shots of nature. I was really looking forward to seeing Skull Island with Vogt-Roberts’ keen eye for nature photography, especially with a master like Larry Fong running cinematography.

Sure enough, every last frame of this movie is flat fucking gorgeous. The lighting is inspired, the framing is impeccable, the movements are ingenious, and the strategic use of slo-mo is fantastic. There’s not a bad shot in the film. It also helps that the sound design is full of plenty of wonderful touches, to say nothing of Henry Jackman’s score and the soundtrack of awesome ’70s rock songs.

The film looks amazing, it sounds amazing, the VFX are beautifully done, and the character designs are worthy of Miyazaki. Naturally, all of this makes for a breathtaking excursion to Skull Island, loaded with action sequences that are a joy to watch. I was so glad to have seen this in 3D IMAX because the premiums were worth every cent.

(Side note: The extended preview for Dunkirk certainly didn’t hurt. Seriously, I’d recommend an IMAX screening just for that.)

But is the film perfect? Fuck no!

Obviously, there are plot problems. Probably foremost among them are the giant mountain-sized beasts who can somehow move without any sign or detection whatsoever. But then we have a plot that’s primarily driven by terrible decisions, most of which are arbitrarily made by our main characters.

Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are both supremely talented performers, consistently watchable in even the shittiest of films. But their characters are so relentlessly boring that they’ve got nothing to work with. These are the ostensible “heroes” of the film, and they do basically nothing but move the plot forward. What’s more, the chemistry between these actors is so flat that I couldn’t even tell you if they were trying for a romance arc.

Similarly, we’ve got incredibly talented up-and-comers who were totally and utterly wasted. I’m specifically referring to Corey Hawkins, who more than proved himself worthy of stardom in Straight Outta Compton; and Tian Jing, who singlehandedly made The Great Wall into something watchable. And here, both of them are playing characters so bland and ineffectual that they may as well not have been in the film at all. Outrageous.

And speaking of Straight Outta Compton alumni who were utterly wasted, Jason Mitchell is stuck playing a whiny, useless, annoying comic relief character. Ditto for Thomas Mann. We’ve also got Shea Whigham and John Ortiz, both highly accomplished character actors who don’t make nearly enough of an impression for how much screentime they get (though admittedly, Whigham puts in a yeoman’s work).

Toby Kebbell is in a similar situation, though he at least partially redeems himself sharing the mo-cap role of Kong. He shares the titular role with Terry Notary, both of whom had previously worked together on… wait for it… Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). So needless to say, this portrayal of Kong is fantastic.

Mercifully, there are a few actors in this cast who get to put in some solid performances. John Goodman is one of them. He’s stuck in a thin and thankless role, sure, but Goodman is more than talented enough to make it work.

The second MVP is Samuel L. Jackson, in the role of Col. Packard. This is the character out to kill Kong at any cost, but his motivations have nothing to do with greed and little to do with Manifest Destiny. He’s not an anti-environmentalist caricature, he’s just a war hero who doesn’t know any life outside the battlefield. He’s pissed off that America just ended the Vietnam War in disgrace because a bunch of civilians back home didn’t have the stomach to keep the war going and honor those men in uniform who actually went out there to do the fighting. He refuses to acknowledge that his men died for nothing in the fields of Vietnam, and he refuses to acknowledge that more of his men died for nothing at Skull Island. He’s a genuinely compelling character, especially in the hands of a legend like Sam Jackson.

And then of course we have John C. Reilly. He plays Hank Marlow, a WWII fighter pilot who got stranded on Skull Island with a Japanese pilot, and the two of them have been living on the island ever since. Marlow is a character with a good sense of humor, and it’s possible that he’s gone a little bit crazy after living in this environment for over two decades. Yet he’s still surprisingly down-to-earth in the sense that even if he doesn’t know precisely how the world has changed, he knows and accepts that the world has changed. He doesn’t react to news of the outside world with shock and hysteria so much as bemused interest. (“So tell me, did we win the war?” “Which one?” “Figures.”)

Reilly really shows his range with this picture, delivering a performance that’s nuanced, humorous, heartbreaking, and never fails to sell the epic stakes of this story. And given how much exposition the character is stuck with, that last part is HUGE.

As for miscellaneous notes, I should probably say a few words about this film and Godzilla (2014). To start with, this is the better movie, if for no other reason than because the setting is so much more interesting. Moreover, that movie (not without reason, to be fair) took its nuclear allegory far more seriously than this movie takes its messages of war and environmentalism.

Yet both pictures have a common thread in the notion that this world isn’t really ours, and we’re just kind of borrowing it from forces older and more powerful than we could possibly imagine. The MUTO acronym gets a shout-out, ditto for the nuclear tests that woke up Godzilla. And we also get a post-credits scene that sets up a massive inter-movie crossover in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we just watched. Baffling.

But easily the most important connection between the two films is in their treatment of their titular monsters. Both films have “evil” monsters that prey upon humans. And these “evil” monsters are the natural predators/prey of the “good” monsters, who really don’t care about humans so long as they stay out of the way. And so these iterations of Kong and Godzilla are both allowed to be feral and highly destructive beasts in such a way that they’re easy to root for.

All told, Kong: Skull Island works much better on the scale of “humanity vs. Kong vs. other monsters”. It’s only when we break “humanity” down into its constituent flat, boring, stupid characters that we start running into problems. Still, at least Sam Jackson and John C. Reilly are great to watch. Plus, the action scenes are amazing, the whole film is a visual feast, and there are a lot of potent themes here to chew on. Even if this whole Godzilla/Kong superfranchise still hasn’t quite caught fire yet, both films are still perfectly fine on their own and this one shows a refreshing amount of brains to go with the spectacle.

It’s a marvelous adventure at the movies, with sounds and visuals that justify the premium ticket prices. Definitely go see it.

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