The Return of King Kong
When movie studios think about creating blockbuster franchises, the norm used to be, how many sequels can we squeeze out of this? These days however, it’s all about the expanded universe. Why focus on a single tree when you’ve got multiple branches that can go in different directions?
Marvel started it with their superhero properties culminating in The Avengers and now you’re seeing Universal create a horror universe with The Mummy this summer followed by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a Bride of Frankenstein film and more to follow.
Warner Bros. is also in the expanded universe business with their DC superhero films, but they’re also resurrecting some famous monsters with the intention of eventually having them battle each other. It began in 2014 with the release of Godzilla and now we arrive at Kong: Skull Island.
Set in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam war, the film begins with William Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) attempting to convince a senator to send them to a remote island. The reasoning behind their expensive excursion is, investigate the unknown island before the Soviets beat them to it. Sounds like a flimsy plot and it is and the screenwriters know it. The senator literally says something like, “I can’t believe I’m about to say this but, go ahead.”
After getting that out of the way, the film needs to recruit a band of lunatics dumb enough to go. Insert Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who seeks purpose after the end of the war, a former British officer named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) who can be bought for the right price and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who just sort of shows up.
There’s a bunch of other people on the trip because a high body count is inevitable.
Kong: Skull Island seems like a direct response to all the people that complained about Godzilla. In that film, the giant lizard is hidden for large stretches of the film. An occasional scene teases a big battle. We finally get a grand finale with the king of monsters and while it’s worth the price of admission, many felt focusing on the human characters was a big waste of time (I’m looking at you Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
There’s no need to worry about the screen time for Kong because he’s front-and-center within the first five minutes. But much like Godzilla, Kong is at its best when the big ape is on screen. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts shows great visual flare in showcasing Kong whether it’s in the action sequences or when the monster is simply standing in front of a setting sun.
Vogt-Roberts seems to be influenced by Apocalypse Now in the Vietnam-era setting. But he eventually settles into a curious direction involving a lot of foreground shots and perfectly centered frames. It’s as if Wes Anderson suddenly high-jacked the movie and was making it in 3D.
The film features numerous battles where Kong fights helicopters, giant squid and skull monsters and the set pieces are stellar and creative. Seeing the ape chuck a palm tree at a helicopter or swing an old ship prop at a monster are just some of the scenes to look forward too. This is what we want in a creature feature.
While all of this is happening, our human characters are attempting to traverse through unfamiliar terrain while also avoiding various crustaceans living on the island. Some are good, but most are bad resulting in an unpredictability that worked for the most part.
Unfortunately, the characters are thinly drawn. Hiddleston and Larson have no arc. They’re simply pretty faces to put on posters. Jackson has a little more to do. Once he becomes a pseudo villain, you kind of see where he’s coming from. Goodman’s character also has a hidden agenda. But that reveal takes way too long to coalesce and once it does, we don’t really care.
The most memorable human character is Marlow played by the always fantastic John C. Reilly. He’s been marooned on the island since WWII and while that could have been an interesting story line, Reilly is mostly there for comic relief. And thankfully so because nearly every other joke delivered by anyone else falls flat.
If you go into Kong: Skull Island with the intent of seeing an entertaining monster movie, you’ll be mostly satisfied. The action is impressive and often and some of the visuals are truly awesome.
But the film suffers from weird tonal shifts and a stellar cast that is ultimately wasted. There’s also some shoddy CGI work, particularly a scene involving Hiddleston, Larson and Kong that briefly took me out of the movie.
I think I liked Godzilla better because the filmmakers presented him as this awe-inspiring and terrifying monster. There was also great emphasis put on the epic scope of a giant monster invading our land and some of the shots and musical choices were unforgettable.
Kong: Skull Island on the other hand is a rock em sock em rampage movie and nothing more. I would have liked a little more beyond that.