So I was planning to do a more in-depth, spoiler-heavy review of Logan this week. But then I went to the movies again, and (considering that this is primarily a funnybook blog) I didn’t want to do three movie reviews in a row. So! Here we are with the big monkey.
Kong: Skull Island is the eighth King Kong movie, and the first to remake the original without actually using the original story. That was a bit of a surprise to me going in; I hadn’t given much thought to what they’d do with it, so the scientific / military mission at the heart of this film wasn’t even a scenario I’d considered. I also didn’t know that they’d set it in 1973, at the very end of the Vietnam War. I rolled with those surprises, though, and I think I may have enjoyed the movie more because of it.
And enjoy it I did. While it ain’t high art, it is a fun pulp adventure story, one that excites without utterly insulting your intelligence, complete with flawed heroes and good men driven to bad decisions. That latter role is taken on by Samuel L. Jackson, playing Army Colonel Preston Packard, a man bitter over the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and left adrift without a war to fight. He takes the discovery of Kong (and its subsequent carnage) very personally, leading to one of the great over-the-top moments in modern pulp movie history: Sam Jackson staring down a giant gorilla.
Jackson and Kong lock eyes on two or three different occasions in this flick, and it’s awesome every time, for all kinds of meta-fictional reasons I shouldn’t have to explain. It’s pretty great in-story, too, though. Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab, and that’s very apt. After losing half his men to Kong’s first attack, Packard is out for revenge, and can’t see past winning that fight, regardless of the consequences. That attitude is wrong, but understandable. The shadow of Vietnam looms over Packard, and keeps him from becoming an outright villain, even when he takes things too far.
Vietnam also looms over Tom Hiddleston’s character James Conrad, a former SAS officer and expert jungle tracker who dropped out of the fighting, but didn’t leave the country. Conrad is working as a guide at the start of the film, hired on ostensibly to lead the mission safely through unknown terrain, but actually to track Kong for them. He’s uncertain about the correctness of the mission in Vietnam, and that makes him a character of uncertain loyalties once they’re on Skull Island.
Or at least, I think that’s how his arc is supposed to go. Conrad is woefully under-developed, and mostly winds up playing as a super-competent hero type, and a maybe-maybe-not love interest for Brie Larson’s feisty photo-journalist character, Mason Weaver. She makes the anti-war / pro-nature argument, and Larson does a nice job keeping her strong in spite of her peaceful perspective. While she doesn’t have much in the way of fighting skills, she’s still presented as physically competent, having covered frontline combat in Vietnam, and being able to climb steep cliff faces just as fast as the much-vaunted jungle tracker Conrad. She’s no damsel in distress, in other words, and that’s refreshing in a film series that’s famous for having a giant ape disrobe screaming starlets by poking them with a single titanic finger.
Weaver’s strength makes her a good heroic match for Conrad but, like him, she’s a bit bland. So her conflict with the win-at-any-cost Packard lacks passion, and that leaves Conrad (who I think is supposed to be caught between them) without much drama. He’s the action hero guy, and that’s about it.
That’s okay, though. Because Kong is well-executed enough that making the traditional heroes kind of boring doesn’t hurt the film all that much. All the soldiers may be war movie stereotypes, for instance, but they’re written and played well enough that they take up the slack. The plot, likewise, isn’t anything new, whittling down the cast in much the manner you would expect from a monster movie. But most of those deaths happen in such a way that they still manage to surprise. The Vietnam stuff adds something to the proceedings, too, giving events a weight they might not otherwise have. The script is loosely structured around Apocalypse Now, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts takes more than a few visual cues from that film, as well.
It also doesn’t hurt that the rest of the major stars are as good as they are. I’ve already talked about Sam Jackson, and he’s a treat to watch as he prowls and scowls and bullies his way across the island. But John Goodman is also on-hand, playing the sort of personable, earnest, and just slightly shady character he excels at. Here, he’s the head of Monarch (a US government agency devoted to the study of monsters), who gets everyone into this mess without ever telling them that he thinks they’re going to find some kind of giant murderous beast when they get there. And that moral quandary makes him more interesting than he might be in a film with a lesser script, or with a lesser actor in the role.
The guy who really steals the show here, though, is John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow…
…a fighter pilot who’s been stranded on Skull Island ever since his plane crashed there in World War II. He’s gone a bit nuts in the years since, and that allows Reilly to have a field day, ad-libbing darkly comic warnings about the dangers of the island and filling in important exposition in a way that’s fun and entertaining rather than tedious. He becomes the beating human heart of the film, as well. If Larson and Hiddleston are blandly heroic, Reilly is a guy you can really care about. His good-natured pottiness and nearly-forgotten desire to see his wife and son again become the human through-line that reminds you why it’s so important to get off the island rather than get revenge on Kong. Speaking of whom…
I’ve spent more than enough time droning on about the humans. Let’s get down to what’s really important here: the monsters. Long story short, they’re pretty great. There are whole flights of carnivorous bird-things, giant stick bugs, a frighteningly-presented giant spider, and a massive water buffalo that somehow manages to inspire genuine awe and wonder.
Well, okay. It did for me, anyway. And while it’s not easy for a major-studio Hollywood flick to penetrate the thick layer of cynicism toward such things that all the disappointing claptrap I’ve seen over the years has built around my heart, I will admit that, once the barrier’s been breached, I’m a pretty easy mark for awe and wonder. Really, all a film’s got to do is not be incredibly stupid, and I’m probably along for the ride. That so many films fail at this is a continuing source of wonder (and ulcers) in and of itself.
At any rate. The film (unlike me) doesn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff. We’re still in the “awe-inspiring beauty of nature” part of the choppers’ first fly-over of Skull Island when suddenly, an uprooted tree comes flying straight through the windshield. Next thing you know, there’s a giant ape-hand swatting them out of the sky, and we’re off to the races.
That’s one thing I really like about this take on Kong: he’s ferocious, yes, but also smart. There are hints that there’s more going on with him than simply being a giant gorilla – he walks upright, for one thing – and that’s borne out in the way he fights. That his first attack is a devastatingly accurate javelin toss says a lot. While there’s no indication of a true human-level intelligence at work, he still plays a bit smarter than a regular animal. Plus, he’s got a job to do.
That job is fighting reptilian creatures that Marlow calls “Skull Crawlers,” which are some kinda weird albino snake things with long, spindly arms and bony heads like a pike.
These things crawl up out of the earth through some kind of steam vents, and eat anything they can get their hands on. Most are merely huge, maybe the size of a large elephant or a whale. That there’s a truly gargantuan one lurking underground really does not constitute a spoiler. I mean… It’s a giant monster movie, for crying out loud. Of COURSE there’s a big one!
I must admit, though, that I wasn’t entirely sold on the design of these things. They look a little too much like something a 12-year-old would draw in his notebook on a boring day in Math class, and don’t really fit with the more naturalistic design of the other giant beasts on display here. I mean, I guess that’s the point. They look demonic, like something that’s not part of the natural order, and with the hard-on this film’s got for nature, I suppose that marks them as something not to be loved.
But, still. I thought they looked stupid.
Anyway. Alongside all the giant animals and outright monsters, this film also trades in some classic pulp tropes. There’s some “Hollow Earth” stuff going on, for instance, to explain where all these giants are coming from. Which of course immediately makes a dork like me wonder if we’re going to be getting some Lost World / Pellucidar action in the sequels. And there will be sequels. The plan is to build this into a multi-film, multi-monster franchise. It started with the American Godzilla film that came out a year or two back, and is set to continue with other Toho Studios monsters in the mix. If you’re into that kind of stuff, by the way, make sure you stick around for the post-credits sequence. It’s pretty cool.
Which in the end is probably the best review I could give to Kong: Skull Island. It’s not a great film. It may not even be a good one, if you’re not into the whole giant monster thing. But, MAN! Is it ever cool.
And in this particular instance… Cool is all you really need.