Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s monster mash may be one long setup for future films, but if the monsters are going to look this good, we should let them keep fighting.
There are two objectives when making a monster movie. The first is creating cool monsters that smash things up real good. The second, and more challenging objective, is creating human characters that don’t induce coma in the audience between the monster fights. The latest iteration of the giant ape that prefers blondes, Kong: Skull Island, understands monster movies well enough to overcome its many flaws and give us the simplistic thrills that we crave.
From the iconic 1933 original to Peter Jackson’s bloated 2005 re-make, King Kong has always been about trying to control the uncontrollable. Man strives to shackle the Beast, while the Beast yearns to possess the Beauty. These conflicting motivations fuel an escalating fight that invariably leaves the humans miserable and Kong wishing he had never seen the Empire State Building.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Legendary Entertainment’s ‘MonsterVerse’ have far more pressing concerns than human frailty and monkey infatuation when it comes to Kong: Skull Island, however. This re-boot/prequel is the second in what will be, presumably, a long line of films that eventually kills our desire to watch CGI monsters fight.
The fitfully entertaining Godzilla (2014) lurched from the gate with a conservative formula more befitting the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the gleefully weird Toho squash-fests of the past. More attention was paid to building continuity with future films than adding anything new or exciting to the stagnant monster genre. In other words, it was entertaining but instantly forgettable.
And so it goes with Kong: Skull Island.
Here, the secret government agency introduced in Godzilla, Monarch, continues their investigation of all things monster related. Amidst the backdrop of the United States’ hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1973, Monarch representative Randa (John Goodman) organizes an expedition to an island in the Pacific known as “Skull Island”. Why people tempt fate with these sinister island names remains a mystery (nothing bad ever happened on “Bob’s Island”). All manner of weird rumors swirl around Skull Island, as does an ever-present hurricane that deters intrusion from the outside world.
That doesn’t stop Randa, who assembles a team of military helicopter pilots led by the slightly unhinged Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard personifies obsession and naked human aggression, fueled by his squadron’s disastrous initial encounter with Kong. It’s a glorious sight to behold; Kong’s hulking physique backlit by the heat-distorted rays of the Sun. He destroys everything with style, sometimes using helicopters as improvised clubs.
This sequence highlights the full destructive power of Kong, who stands guardian to the Native inhabitants of Skull Island. Beneath the island’s crust lurks the “Skull Crawlers”; an uninspiring hybrid between lizards and the industrial waste monster from Joon-ho’s The Host. Luckily, there are more interesting monstrosities on Skull Island, including giant ants and an octopus that would make Captain Nemo wet his trousers.
Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer, 2013) never indulges the urge to overuse Kong. He rumbles from the jungle, does something beastly and unrelentingly loud, and then retires to his giant ape estate that was apparently too expense to show. The filmmakers understand that audiences want short, spectacular bursts from their monsters, and Kong delivers on every level.
The remainder of the film must be carried by Kong’s human co-stars. Tom Hiddleston assembles a respectable Bond audition reel as Conrad, the tracker with a troubled past. He’s joined by a rabblerousing photojournalist named Mason (Brie Larson). There’s a hint of conflict with Colonel Packard, who blames Mason’s damning war pictorials for swaying public opinion on Vietnam, but it never really amounts to much. Mostly, people just walk around the jungle waiting to be eaten by creatures.
Hiddleston is a serviceable action hero, but that’s not where his brooding talents lie (see: Only Lovers Left Alive). Larson is better, easily making you believe that a primordial beast could fall for her. She’s a smoldering physical force. In fact, Kong: Skull Island might easily be renamed Larson: Tank Top. It’s ironic that the romance between the Beast and Belle in Disney’s upcoming blockbuster Beauty and the Beast is easily eclipsed by the awkward bond between Kong and Mason. They stare soulfully into each other’s eyes and you believe it completely.
Samuel L. Jackson has a blast with Packard's Ahab-like obsession to crush Kong. The bombs may have stopped falling, but this is a man who will never return from the war. It’s no coincidence that many of the river scenes in Kong: Skull Island, in which a derelict boat winds its way into the wild jungle, resemble the haunting cinematography from Apocalypse Now. Colonel Packard and Colonel Kurtz are cut from the same wild-eyed cloth that demands moral justice from an indifferent universe.
Jackson’s over-the-top performance is emblematic of a film that lacks subtext. Sure, there are some vague comparisons between America’s thirst for conquest and Packard’s complete disregard for the residents of Skull Island, but these are limited to a few lines of random dialogue and some stock Vietnam War footage. Even worse is an overbearing ‘70s soundtrack that leaves you wondering if Forrest Gump actually scored the film.
Still, Kong: Skull Island is a perfectly acceptable monster mash. Kong looks great, the action is thunderous, and any film that features John C. Reilly using a samurai sword to battle giant monsters is definitely worth seeing. Seriously, why isn’t John C. Reilly in every movie? This may be one long setup for future installments, but if the monsters are going to look this good, we should let them keep fighting.