Reviewed by John Hussey
With the current state of Hollywood being, “How the fuck do we compete with Marvel Studios?! They’re making a shit ton of content year in, year out, and its selling and making them a huge profit! And the worst part is people like this! Solution, instead of trying something different we’ll just replicate their formula and we’ll make a shit of money too!”, it comes as no surprise when I heard that Legendary Pictures wanted to tackle a shared universe in an attempt to bring Godzilla and King Kong together on the big screen.
But honestly this idea didn’t make me sigh with frustration like when the DC Extended Universe was first announced (which had a similar idea of quickly building up to have Batman and Superman together on the big screen for a massive showdown, which sadly, didn’t pan quite as expected). It’s not like these two iconic creatures haven’t encountered each other before, and so I looked at this idea more as a reimagining.
So it’s fair to say that this idea peaked my interest. After all, Godzilla was a brilliant film, more so because it came out of nowhere and absolutely blew me away with how awesome it was. Kong: Skull Island did a similar thing. Like with Godzilla I wasn’t too familiar with the starring creature, and had only seen him via clips or recent interpretations (in this case Peter Jackson‘ King Kong). But this interpretation instantly grabbed me because I knew it was going to be different. I liked going in knowing it was an establishing film to further expand the MonsterVerse universe, which started with Godzilla.
That in itself though could’ve been a major issue because there was the worry that the film would lose its originality and focus less on making a really good King Kong movie and instead concentrate on tying the knots for 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong. But this thankfully didn’t happen and instead director Jordan Vogt-Roberts did the unthinkable by creating a great Kong movie, as well as pushing the franchise further along in its development. The ties were clearly there, and it was great trying to spot them all, but also the film felt contained somewhat, in which you could immerse yourself in its tale as a stand-alone film. In that case, Kong: Skull Island was the best possible way to re-establish the giant gorilla on the big screen.
One of the elements that hooked me was the phenomenal cast, with the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman being brought on to star in this explosive, action-pack, thrill ride into the forbidden lands of the world. But there were some doubts going into this film because of critics stating that the characters weren’t very well developed, appearing as typical clichés for the convenience of the ongoing narrative. I wouldn’t say that the characters were all that bad. Sure they aren’t the best characters in Hollywood but they were certainly entertaining, and at least engaging, to the point where I actually cared about them.
I also found that the motivations were mostly there, granting the different characters there own specific reasoning to travel to Skull Island. Goodman’s character William Randa, a senior member of organisation Monarch, is desperate to set up a study on Skull Island and pleads to his superiors to authorise the trip, which is eventually granted when the idea that the Russians may discover the find first is placed in front of them. Though it’s clearly obvious that there’s more to Randa than originally stated, which is obviously referenced by his secretive nature over the true intent of the mission, deliberately telling his team what they need to know.
Though it is quite clichéd, as you’re simply waiting for the lies to unfold and one of the characters to get angry at him in order to make him spill the truth, only for him to reveal, “Yes, I got people killed for selfish desires, you got me.” But it’s done well, so you look past the clichéd nonsense. In fact, it’s rather interesting to hear Randa’s reasoning to travel to Skull Island. It isn’t simply to capture King Kong (like you’d expect) but rather to prove to the world that monsters are real. This is where things start to link into Godzilla’s established world.
As seen in Godzilla, Earth is inhabited with giant creatures that have lived on the planet before man evolved. Kong: Skull Island continues this basis by exploring more of that world, bringing together the theory that man isn’t in control, but rather these God-like creatures. Randa was aboard a ship that was (presumably) attacked by Godzilla, around the time when the Japanese tried destroying him with atomic weaponry (covered up by the idea that they were testing the explosives capabilities). Randa is desperate to prove what he saw was real, fearing that the Gods will soon return to reclaim their world from man.
Then you have your usual hero (in the form of Hiddleston) and honestly I can’t really complain about his character. James Conrad is everything you’d expect from a gritty, action, adventure such as this. But to give him credit he is a little bit more than just an action-hero dishing out badass moments. Hiddleston feels like he’s a broken man who is trying to find himself, having become almost a product of war. He’s literally breathed in it and it’s almost become second nature to him, with him understanding the carnage formed with such conflicts, and yet holds no real allegiances. But honestly, it’s just really nice to see Hiddleston do his thing, and that he does exceptionally well.
The most interesting character comes with L. Jackson, with his character Preston Packard, who is the leader of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron. Having just come from the war in Vietnam, Packard is still fazed by its impact, and in some ways has been affected by his duty. It’s clear from his introduction that something isn’t quite right with him. Whilst his comrades celebrate the fact their returning home to their loved ones Packard sits alone in his office staring at his medals of honour. He even questions what they now stood for. It’s probably a combination of dissatisfaction at failing to win the war he fought hard in (and probably lost too many soldiers over) and not being able to switch off.
This becomes his trait throughout the film as his soldier mode carries his emotional behaviour. He never stops playing “the good little war-machine”. This ultimately takes him to a rather personal level upon his first encounter with King Kong, to which results in nearly his entire platoon being wiped out. Packard takes this rather personally (almost like a declaration of war) and makes it his duty to hunt the creature down and get vengeance for his fallen men.
In fact, this mission becomes obsessive, to the point where his character slowly drives himself insane, using his duty as a soldier almost as an excuse to keep the fight going. It’s almost like he doesn’t want a repeat of the war he just walked away from, in which countless lives were lost all for the sake of walking away from the battle with their trousers round their ankles. Packard is determined to win the war and take down his enemy, who ultimately starts to feel like his prey.
One of the only downsides I can see to this film (in terms of character structure) was the absence of a strong female presence. There’s only two female characters present throughout the majority of Kong: Skull Island and their usefulness goes from “borderline” to “non-existent”. It’s almost like they’re there for the sake of equality. This is a word that’s been doing its rounds within the media and honestly it’s really rattling my brain at how much damage it can cause. Here it’s no difference. The film was destined to be slammed one way or another be either having no female characters (because it didn’t really need any) or by slotting them in to please the moaning bastards (who haven’t got anything better to do with their existence), thus generating characters that have no real place or purpose, and thereby provoking more controversy.
It’s kind of a shame because Brie Larson seemed like she could act, it was simply a case of not being given the best material to work with. Her character, Mason Weaver, was more or less just there to give Hiddleston moral support. Though, to be fair, she was still entertaining and somewhat engaging (if slightly pointless). I think the only major thing she did throughout the film was take pictures of every given thing on the island, which isn’t saying much. I suppose her character really got a chance to shine when she became the idol in King Kong’s eyes, thus establishing the iconic romantic bond that the giant gorilla goes through in order to determine he’s more than just a rampaging beast, and that he is capable of affection.
And finally there was John C. Reilly. I love this guy. He’s utterly brilliant and fun in every single one of his roles, and here was no exception. Critics also complained that the humour (particularly Reilly’s) felt out of place within this type of film, often falling flat, or having no real purpose, thus ruining the moment and overall tone. To be fair the comedy in this film was a little clumsy at times and didn’t always meet its mark, but it wasn’t bad, with a few lines making me lightly chuckle. But in no way was Reilly a bad element.
His character is rather odd within the grand-scheme of things, but that just makes his role more hilarious. He plays a World War II soldier, Hank Marlow, who winds up crashing on Skull Island with a Japanese pilot. Upon realising the danger they’re now faced with the two enemies became allies (and ultimately good friends) as they adapted to the ecosystem. You’d expect his character to be rather sharp, and almost inhuman, as the life of survival took prominence, but I feel that would’ve made the film too realistic.
I liked the fact they made Marlow eccentric because it lightened the mood where necessary. Plus, Reilly wasn’t always dishing out one-liners and often had something really important to say (because he actually knew what he was talking about) and when it came to action he was well equipped. So I would say Reilly’s presence (like the other actors mentioned) actually added to Kong: Skull Island rather than detracted. Plus the conclusion to his character was nothing short of heart-warming.
When it came to King Kong I was really blown away at how unique they made him appear within this reinterpretation. The filmmakers of this film had a lot riding on them. Not only did they have to re-establish the character for the MonsterVerse, ready for his encounter with Godzilla in 2020, but they also had to make the creature feel fresh. This is quite difficult when you consider Andy Serkis practically did that back in 2005 with King Kong, showcasing why he’s the go-to-guy when it comes to motion-capture (because the man knows what he’s fucking doing).
Obviously Legendary Pictures had to think long and hard and I think what they accomplished with Kong: Skull Island was utterly fantastic. They’d already brought Godzilla back in the best way possible (with his design being both gorgeous and very reminiscent of his original design). Vogt-Roberts really knew how to capture this gigantic God-like creature and bring him to life. Despite King Kong feeling similar to Godzilla, he felt very unique and stood on his own two feet (quite literally). I think it was helped by the fact he was given his own identity (which differentiated him from Godzilla) and was introduced rather differently.
Whereas Godzilla was much slower, and more mysterious, Kong: Skull Island went for a more “in-your-face” approach and had King Kong introduced rather quickly. I was then expecting his character to only appear rather sparingly from then on, but instead was surprised to see him feature on-and-off throughout the feature, with him granted an extended cameo for the climax. So it’s fair to say this film was more rewarding by spoiling us with plenty of screen-time with the lovable gorilla. That’s not to say that Godzilla did it wrong. I’m glad that film worked that way because it suited the tone and narrative it was trying to put across, just the same that this film had its own tone and narrative, making them feel similar, and yet different.
Though it is fair to say that King Kong’s presence within this film is smaller than previous films (particularly King Kong, which was dedicated to make the giant gorilla a more three-dimensional character, thanks to Serkis’ phenomenal performance) but this didn’t dampen the film’s quality, or focus. Like with Godzilla, the focus was mostly on the human characters and how they were affected by the presence of monsters. Whereas the first film felt more global in its scale, this film is scaled back to be a more survival based film, harkening back to classics such as Jurassic Park, but much grittier and explosive.
But King Kong’s presence is always thrilling, stealing the spotlight away from the rest of the characters (which is probably why his appearance is scattered to make room for the humans so they don’t become redundant). Plus, King Kong would quickly lose his charm if we got too much of him too quickly. What we got was enough to satisfy and grow a taste for more of him in the upcoming films.
I think what I loved the most about his character was the way he moved. In previous interpretations King Kong moved like a gorilla, but in this version he moves like he’s a man and stands on two feet. This made his movements very distinct, and ultimately allowed him to do more interesting stuff. When it came to the various fight sequences King Kong’s fighting style was truly awe-inspiring because I hadn’t seen anything like it before. He got quite gritty with his techniques, resorting to punches, grabbing enemies in headlocks, and even turning the environment into weapons. There was a point where I felt like King Kong had literally been playing Mortal Kombat way too much.
What’s more, King Kong had a similar establishment as Godzilla, in which he isn’t a terrifying beast of destruction but rather a guardian. Just as Godzilla rose from the sea to stop the MUTO it was King Kong’s duty to protect Skull Island from the presence of the Skullcrawlers. This established his presence within this world of monsters and Gods really neatly, as well as giving King Kong a more noble presence, specifically when it came to the iconic helicopter sequence in which he trashed them all in retaliation to their aggressive arrival in his territory (which he had sworn to protect). In that moment you clearly side with King Kong because you see where he’s coming from, which says a lot about the film’s establishment of his character.
What more can I say about this awesome re-interpretation of Kong? Go see it for yourself! If you liked Godzilla, you’ll definitely like this. The cast is super-fantastic. The narrative is gripping. And the connecting dots to push the franchise forward is very pleasing. Honestly, the after-credits sequence really got me excited for Godzilla vs. Kong. As promised, Legendary Pictures are bringing in both new, and classic monsters, from the old Japanese films, and it would seem like we’re in for a real treat over the next few years.
Though it is quite vague where the films will be going after Godzilla: King of the Monsters (due out in 2019) and the massive cross-over event in 2020, but I’m sure whatever is being cooked will be worth the wait. Also, as a final note, I just want to say how stunning this film looked and how well they incorporated the 1970s era as a core element. It really made this film feel even more unique and brave, cementing it as a true classic, similar to Godzilla.