King Kong is permanently etched in the fabric of American lure. Like Frankenstein, Dracula or Godzilla, however, he is the only authentically American monster. Kong has been around for nearly a century, and with that he has gradually grown into a mythic figure that reflects the time and place of the story he is in.
All of the iterations of him so far have had their merits. The 1933 version is one of the seminal films of the early sound era and certainly one of the best films that arose from the Great Depression. The 1976 version, though not particularly good, has performances that are just crazy enough to make it worth seeing. The 2005 film works both as an homage to the original and a complete advancement of the cinematic form regarding visual effects.
Now comes the 2017 film, Kong: Skull Island. There is no film in recent memory that I was rooting for more than this. I am, and have always been, a big fan of Kong. The ’33 and the ’05 versions are both films that mean a lot to me personally. There is no mistaking that the Kong from those films has, in large part, been wiped away.
This Kong, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts , has been brought to the end of the Vietnam War and exists on a version of Skull Island that seems adjacent to the absurdity of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. In all actuality, this is a world filled to the brim with a brutal imagination. Every new monster that is introduced seems to be left on the cutting room floor of one of the Hellboy films.
As beautifully populated and energetic this telling of Kong is at times, the film isn’t without constant frustrations. Nearly all those frustrations come from the plot, or what there is of it, which follows a group of soldiers, scientists and trackers to Skull Island to explore the last island on the earth that hasn’t been discovered. How the island has stayed hidden all these years is actually a pretty clever device and lends itself to how this place is just a breeding group of unknown and prehistoric monsters. Bill Randa, a scientist and conspiracy theorist played by John Goodman, assembles a team of explorers starring one of the most impressive casts in recent memory. Just look at this list of names: Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins, John C. Reilly, Shea Whigham, Tian Jing (she is in the movie to say three lines), John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell and Richard Jenkins. Sadly, this all-star cast is stranded with some of the worst dialogue in recent years. The only performer that gets to have a little fun with it is John C. Reilly, who brings a strange, twisted energy to an otherwise stale script. He is also the second most believable performance in the film, behind only Kong himself, and he certainly gets the film’s best lines.
In what must be a response to the complaints lobbed at the lack of Godzilla in the 2014 Godzilla, Kong is almost immediately introduced once the expedition arrives to Skull Island. He proceeds to dispatch an entire fleet of helicopters as though they were pesky flies that got in his way.
There is no doubt that Kong is a beautiful creation, however he is also entirely too big for this world. Instead of being about twenty-five feet tall, he must be over one hundred feet tall in this iteration. The size matters so much because he is invariably shown in the same frame as human beings and there is no possible way they are able to be effectively framed together. In Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the creation of Kong was a perfect size to frame against humans. Vogt-Roberts’ Kong won’t be climbing any buildings because he is as big as one.
After this helicopter battle, the survivors are split-up into two factions. This is about the point in time where we meet John C. Reilly who has been marooned on this island since the end of WWII when his airplane went down. Reilly joins the Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson faction as they fight their way through magical beast after magical beast.
There are at least two or three occasions in the film that have transcendent moments of high caliber action. The helicopter scene is wonderfully chaotic and the final battle between Kong and a massive naked rat-looking thing is also incredible. This film is ostensibly a training montage for when Kong fights Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah or Rodan.
There isn’t much of a movie here. It turns into people running through hell on earth, which is fun enough until people talk, which sadly, they do. When Godzilla was released, the argument was made that the human characters were purposefully vanilla. I didn’t buy that argument then, but it makes perfect sense here. The humans are literally a vessel in which to witness the glory of beasts fighting beasts.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t without its charms, but they are few and far between. It is a jumbled mess that can’t figure out what it wasn’t to be. At once, it is a critique of colonialism and a staunch anti-war film; then it becomes a movie where a giant ape uses a massive anchor as a battering ram. For Legendary Pictures, this is certainly a move in the right direction, as opposed to the 2014 Godzilla. This film is all about fun. It is brutal and skull-crushing experience, but it is still fun. Maybe, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which is slated for a 2019 release, will understand that we don’t really need human characters when you get to see a 50-ton ape wrestling an abominable hellhound of a creature.