2014’s Godzilla reboot was a film that proved America can make a great Godzilla movie by giving us probably the most bad-ass Godzilla of the modern age… it was just a shame that they had to surround him by bland characters and missed Bryan Cranston sized opportunities. With the release of Kong: Skull Island the new shared Monsterverse – because of course everything is copying Marvel now – is underway and while it does suffer from some of the same problems as Godzilla, it also kicks ass in much the same way. If this is the direction the franchise is taking then I’m happy to see where they go.
Set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam war, head of a dying MONARCH Bill Randa pleads with his senator to allow him one final expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific known only as Skull Island, against all the odds Randa is granted his expedition as well as a military escort led by Colonel Packard of the Sky Devils Helicopter Squadron, as well as a tracker in the form of ex-Air Serviceman James Conrad and a photojournalist in Mason Weaver.
Upon arrival on the island Packard’s men start dropping seismic charges for the geologists to get a reading of the ground density, but are almost immediately set upon by a 100ft tall ape who completely obliterates the group, killing several soldiers and splitting them in two. In one group, Packard, Randa and a handful of soldiers band together to reconnect with pilot Chapman whose helicopter has the firepower to bring down the ape. In the other, Conrad, Weaver and a surviving geologists are found by the local inhabitants as well as WW2 pilot Hank Marlow who has been on the island for the last 28 years after his plane crashed, Marlow explains that the ape is Kong, King of the Island who protects the people from monstrous underground lizards called Skullcrawlers, with the bombs having woken the Skullcrawlers, the group have to fight their way through a monsters battleground in order to reach the other side of the Island in time for their pick-up or else face terrors the likes of which have never been seen before.
Admittedly it’s a very simple story in terms of just these people surviving in a world that doesn’t like them but it’s executed well, the world building is strong and we get to see enough of the island to understand how the ecosystem works – essentially its Kong killing everything. Add in some personalised stories like Packard’s quest for revenge and Marlow’s wish to go home and you’ve got something easy but enjoyably that can carry the 2 hours.
Like Godzilla, this does also suffer from lack of characters, it is better in some regards but you do end up with quite a few missteps, most of the geology team enter the film with the words ‘Cannon Fodder’ in bright neon above their heads, individually the soldiers could’ve been better defined but as a unit I bought into their camaraderie and believed they were friends fighting for each other, most notably Young Mills and Old Cole, the back and forth between them with Mills being a motor-mouth and Cole being a stoic veteran made for some nice characterisation.
The biggest disappointment surprisingly was Tom Hiddleston as Conrad, the guy had all the makings of a decent action hero, ex-army, often the smartest guy in the room, strong enough to hold his own but compassionate enough to know when not to fight. And yet he never really came into his own, all the ingrediants don’t mean a thing if you can’t make anything out fo them and Hiddleston just lacked the charm that he brought to someone like Loki, there was just no personality to Conrad so anytime he plays the hero it’s like he’s just going through the motions. It’s not enough to kill the film because this is still Kong’s movie even if Conrad is objectively the hero, but it’s enough to knock it down a tad.
The other big names fared a little better, John Goodman’s Randa felt just unhinged enough to be crazy but together enough to show he knew what he was talking about and had probably been beaten down by people laughing in his face for years, in essence he wasn’t a danger but his own personal interests over took the lives of others more than once. Sam Jackson really shone through as Packard, channelling Colonel Kurtz he played a man who had lost so many to Vietnam that abandoning the war left him lost until he found a new purpose with the mission, now losing more men to Kong he found himself a new enemy and the sheer hatred he had for the ape fuelled him to the edge and then right over it, this was a strong performance for Jackson who provided the film with a chilling human villain. Brie Larson did a fine job as Weaver, a young woman stuck in with a group of older men she represented the changing times as noted by her self-proclaimed title as anti-war photographer. This worked to her advantage as her natural compassion put her on Kong’s good side, almost becoming the Far Wray of the film but never going too far in that direction, while her time in the shit of Vietnam has hardened her to the point where she’s actively fighting alongside the soldiers and earning her place among them. A lot of Larson natural charisma shines through which is what sets her apart from Conrad, she had a lot more going for her and as an added bonus she never got forced into a romance with Conrad, I mean it’s clear they both have the hots for each other but it’s never made anything of.
Also, Brie in that tank-top, Sweet Monkey Jesus.
Rounding out the cast was John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow and if Hiddleston was the film’s biggest misfire, then Reilly is its ace in the hole. The trailers showed him as an out of place comic relief character which technically he still is, but he works so well as that character that he ends up being one of the best parts of the film. Trapped for nearly 30 years, a wife he hasn’t seen since he shipped out, a son he’s never met, his only friend having been killed by Skullcrawlers long ago and nobody to talk to properly since then, Marlow is understandably a little out of sorts, but his time on the island has left him with a few tricks on survival and he’ll often try to keep the others on track, to limited success. Despite it all Reilly gives Marlow enough pathos and humanity to stand out as easily the heart of the film, he defies all expectations and comes out swinging, I doubt they will be if they can bring him back for the sequel or hell, even a prequel then I’d love to see the character again.
As for Kong himself, well he’s got less character than he did in the Peter Jackson remake but he’s also a lot meaner, that’s the biggest thing to take away from this film, unlike Godzilla, Jordan Vogt-Roberts couldn’t wait to start showing Kong off and once he did the film just kicked off in a huge way. We got a good 20 minutes before they reach the island and once there, Kong comes charging out of the gates with an attack scene almost literally like watching Kong take down flies and it’s just goes up from there. With everything from a tangle with a giant octopus to a fucking massive spider who kills a guy by impaling him Cannibal Holocaust style, the creatures of Skull Island are vicious and bloodthirsty and once the Skullcrawlers get involved it gets a lot worse, towards the end of the second act there’s an extended sequence in a mass graveyard where a single Skullcrawler eviscerates several of the team using thick, green fog as cover and that’s only a baby. Once The Big One comes out during the finale we get the best sense of Kong’s fighting style for when he’ll fight Godzilla, it never gets as bad-ass as watching Big G literally nuclear blast a MUTO in the mouth but between using a tree as a baseball bat and using a ship’s rotor as a fucking shuriken, Kong’s got some brains to him.
The 70s setting helps keep the film feeling fresh as well, one of the other big problems with Godzilla is that it was far too dark and grey at times but with this 70s aesthetic we’re allowed a much brighter and more visually appealing brown, orange and green look that fits the tone of the film both visually with the jungle setting and thematically with fire and napalm playing parts in the final act. They didn’t need to make this a Post-Nam film but the fact that they did added a lot, in particular the soundtrack which has a ton of 70s classics from White Rabbit and Bad Moon Rising to Run Through The Jungle and Paranoid, there’s a sense that the film knows exactly what it is and plays to that, maybe a little more serious that it needed to be at times but there’s more than enough fun on offer to just accept that this is a monster movie and roll with it.
I’m very tempted to give Kong: Skull Island an 8, as a spectacle it’s pretty damn incredible and I saw the IMAX 3-D version which is pretty much necessary to get the perfect scale of things, but I don’t think it quite reaches that level. Roberts shows a lot of great promise for blockbusters that you wouldn’t have expected following his first indie-comedy effort, Reilly and Jackson give the film a heart and hate and Larson makes a solid stand for herself and it’s an easy watch for a couple hours so long as you’re not scared of spiders. But even so, there’s a little too much filler, Hiddleston being the biggest offender with the nameless, faceless geologist following close behind and in all honesty, most of the bigger names aren’t great, they just stand out better than Godzilla. Hopefully the franchise will fix this come the Godzilla sequel but taking Kong for what it is, it’s fun but flawed.
Also stay behind for the credits, there’s a little scene hinting at what’s to come in Godzilla 2 and for fans of Kaiju films, it’s gonna be fucking big.