Just a friendly reminder, this is review is very spoiler heavy; if you haven’t seen the film yet but you’re curious, skip on over to Bill Arceneaux’s relatively spoiler-free review. This is diving deep into spoiler territory, and there’s no turning back.
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I loved Kong Skull Island, and I think it’s the best popcorn flick we’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s the welcome palette cleanser from the dark and gritty Logan. It’s an adventure film that took me back to 1993 when I was a kid watching a Tyrannosaurs Rex come to life before my eyes in Jurassic Park. It’s absolutely a monster porn popcorn flick, but if you look closer it’s a beautifully shot film with engaging characters and a unique setting that allows for a non-heavy handed anti-war message. First off, I’m very grateful that nothing in this film feels like a retread; Kong Skull Island doesn’t take place in the 1930’s, Kong doesn’t have a disturbing attraction to human females, Kong doesn’t step foot in New York City, and he doesn’t climb any tall buildings holding any blonde actresses in his palms. I was afraid this film would be bogged down by visual references and “cute” winks to fans of the original, but this take on Kong stands tall on its own two legs. I loved watching him outsmart his foes, and use tools to take down his opponents; it’ll give him an interesting advantage when he finally encounters a certain giant lizard (more on that later). This is something we’ve never seen before, and as a fan of King Kong, I really appreciated this new take.
“We get some really glimpses of what looks like Rodan, accompanied by text confirming this is, in fact, Rodan!”
The human characters were incredibly compelling and likeable; in many ways, the Sky Devil Squadron reminded me of Dutch’s mercenaries in Predator; we don’t know much about most of the characters and their backstory, but we almost immediately identify their camaraderie and their personal dynamic within the group. It makes it meaningful when some of them meet their demise, and it gives us a feeling of relief seeing some of them survive through to the end credits. Samuel L. Jackson plays Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, a character unable to accept the outcome of the Vietnam War. When Kong defends his home from Packard’s men, Packard projects his frustrations, defeat, and loss during the war onto Kong, becoming obsessed with bringing him down. This motivation adds an interesting layer to what could have just been a paper-thin antagonist; you can relate to his anger even if you know he’s definitely not in the right. Those dog tags Packard and his men collected don’t just represent the soldiers lost on Skull Island, they stand for all those that were lost in the war. As Kong is proxy for the enemy, the more levelheaded characters represent the anti-war sentiment that took place back in the US. John C. Reilly’s character, Marlow, is basically a representation of hippie culture, seeing commonality in his fellow man and bonding with a man who he originally perceived as an enemy. He has developed a deep connection to the people of Skull Island, and has earned their respect by abiding by their purer ways. Marlow is a highlight, and I think his little epilogue was magnificent and emotional. These particular characters are so well rounded and deep if you scratch beyond the surface; this is a very smart movie coated in an enjoyably dumb, sugary-coated candy shell.
I have to complain about Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad and Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver; the characters were pushed into the background by the far more interesting supporting cast. There just wasn’t a lot of personality or depth to these characters; they were likeable enough, sure, but we needed more to properly connect with them. The same can be said about John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, and Tian Jing, the Monarch representatives. These people are all find actors, but their characters are very thin; Goodman’s Bill Randa couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to be a villain or a misunderstood hero trying to save the world from unknown dangerous monsters. We get a bit of backstory about why he’s obsessed with proving that Kong exists, but it’s arbitrary exposition. Goodman deserved better. On a more positive note, the film is stunningly beautiful; every short looks like a piece of art. It takes several visual cues from Apocalypse Now, especially the usage of red and orange for fire and sunsets. The creature design was really neat as well, it’s great to see creatures that weren’t just generic dinosaurs and bugs; that bamboo shoot spider thing was downright terrifying.
Let’s delve into this shared monster universe; there are several connections to 2014’s Godzilla; Ken Watanabe’s character, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (who’s name is a reference to a character from the 1954 Gojira original) was a member of Monarch, linking him to Goodman’s character, Bill Rwanda. In the 2014 film, it’s revealed that Godzilla has existed since at least WWII where they were literally trying to kill him under the false pretenses that they were merely preforming weapons tests in the Bikini Atoll. Also, Rwanda, references M.U.T.Os (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), as well as personally being on a ship that was torn apart by a monster; Kong’s not very aquatic, but we all know who is. Also, on Marlow’s flight suit, he’s wearing a patch with a lizard on it, an obvious nod to the King of the Monsters.
Speaking of Godzilla, this shared Kaiju-verse has been in the works for a long time. During SDCC 2014, shortly after Godzilla hit theaters, I braved the grueling trial that is the line to get into Hall H. I happily jumped in line around 5:30pm on Friday evening just so I could get in to see 10 mins of exclusive footage of upcoming movies that some jerkoff who keistered a cellphone would inevitably upload to Youtube anyway. During the Legendary panel, Gareth Edwards appeared on screen to thank everyone for making Godzilla (2014) a success, and he mentioned working on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Godzilla showed up, then roared, and Edwards said he had something special to show the crowd in Hall H:
This is me recalling something I saw once almost three years ago, but the basic gist of it was audio from a JFK speech accompanied by static video showing blacked out dossier text and blurry images akin to the stuff we saw in the) Godzilla’s opening credits sequences. Next, we see the words “There are others.”
We get some really glimpses of what looks like Rodan, accompanied by text confirming this is, in fact, Rodan! Mothra’s next, looking more insect-like and less like the puffy, fluffy flying stuffed animal we’ve seen him as in everything else. Mothra is now confirmed for Godzilla 2…Then the screen flickers, I count one head…then two…then three. KING GHIDORAH! King F*****G Ghidorah! Holy s**t, Toho is letting us unworthy Americans play with their beloved toys! I lost my s**t. I screamed so loudly, my throats burned for weeks. We’re basically getting a modern Destroy All Monsters! This teaser ends with the words: Conflict Inevitable: “LET THEM FIGHT!” I hadn’t been this excited since Thanos smiled at the prospect of courting death in The Avengers.
“I believe that the next time we see Kong he’ll be older, smarter, stronger, and more than a worthy match for that other King of the Monsters.”
That year Legendary/Universal also showed the first trailer for their new Kong film, which honestly I could kind of care less about at the time. Universal was releasing the picture, and cross overs between studios are a bit tricky and unlikely, so my thoughts didn’t immediately jump to a King Kong vs. Godzilla remake. I thought we’d just get another boring Kong movie aping (pun obviously intended) what had come before, as they also described the film as a prequel exploring the origin of Kong and his home, the titular Skull Island. Little did I know Legendary would take their Kong flick to Warner Bros, setting things up for the biggest monster showdown in history. I came into Kong Skull Island fully aware that this film would be the connective tissue linking this cinematic monster to Godzilla and his fellow TOHO rogues’ gallery, still that post-credit scene gave me chills, and hearing Godzilla roar in a King Kong movie made me smile so hard me face hurt for hours after leaving the theater.
That post-credit scene was the perfect setup for a new King Kong vs. Godzilla film. So far, their shared universe is being handled with care and seemingly competent planning; Kong Skull Island takes place in the 1970’s, we were just introduced to a young Kong, not yet a King, but damned big and damned brutal already; imagine how grizzled and battle hardened he’ll be by the year 2020? It’s fair to assume he’s not mature and full-grown. I believe that the next time we see Kong he’ll be older, smarter, stronger, and more than a worthy match for that other King of the Monsters. Will we see Kong on Monster Island? Is Monster Island actually just another name for Skull Island? How awesome would that be? All of the monsters converge at one geographical location and King Kong joins the fray. I’m speculating in this article like I would in the fifth grade with my friends during recess, and that’s a testament to what Warner Bros. and Legendary are building with these characters. Let’s all hope they can actually pull this off.
Kong Skull Island (2017) Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell.
8 out of 10