Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Three years after Godzilla, we get the 2nd entry in the imaginable named Monsterverse, centered on King Kong. Not another remake of the original movie but a new storyline, designed to launch a cinematic universe centered around Godzilla and Kong (Godzilla working as a standalone movie with no references to future entries.) Normally I’d roll my eyes at such crass commercialism but I love Godzilla and Kong so I think this is best thing to happen to film as a medium since The Great Train Robbery.

KSI lacks the sense of tragic myth that gives the original film and its remakes their power, yet in many ways this is closer in spirit to the original Kong than either remake. The 1933 movie was a strange combination of various strands of pulp fiction at the time, made first and foremost to wow audiences, and KSI is in that tradition, a crazy mashup of kaiju eiga and Vietnam war movies. And this feels very much a Japanese kaiju movie as opposed to American giant monster flicks, with Kong reimagined as a heroic protector ala Gamera or Mothra.

Despite all the talk about Apocalypse Now, however, the influence of the Vietnam genre is mostly visual, with the tone that of a blockbuster action/adventure film. However, you can say the same of Captain America The Winter Soldier and the 70s conspiracy thriller films genre and everyone sucked its dick so I think we can cut KSI some slack.

I had some nervousness on the humor before seeing it. One of the things I liked best about Godzilla was it not taking a winking ‘yeah we know this is ridiculous’ smile at the audience. Luckily, Skull Island avoids the rejected Big Bang Theory lines that ruined Jurassic World, and the vast majority of its jokes land. Even better, many of them manage to fulfill more than function: Reilly’s cheeringly talking about what a great group of boys they are die with gets laughs while reinforcing the danger, and Reilly whispering ‘death before dishonor’ in Japanese before fighting a giant lizard with a katana is both ridiculous and awesome, as monster movies should be.

The weakest links are the film’s human leads. Tom Hiddleston manages to just about get by, compensating for his underwritten role with his likability (Legendary should note for future Monserverse installments that you can’t really have a traditional action hero when the titular monsters get the big cheer victories) but Brie Larson’s is a bigger problem. Despite the studio line, Larson’s Weaver is more feminist than previous Kong girls only superficially. Although she doesn’t scream once, is never a captive and gets to fire a flare into a monster like a badass, she is far less important to the story than Fay Wray, Jessica Lange or Naomi Watts were, and doesn’t get nearly the development the last two got. This is especially damaging as since we don’t get a sense of her it’s hard to see why Kong has (platonic) affection for her beyond that she likes nature (though the shot of his hand reaching into the water to save her is magnificent.) But at least the other characters don't constantly neg her about how she should hang out with her nephews instead of focusing on her fucking job.

Fortunately, the other humans fare well (apart from Jing Tian who is given the bare minimum to do and clearly there to help the Chinese box office.) Much deserved praise has been given to John C. Reilly, but I’d like to single out Shea Whigham, who also gets laugh with a more subdued, laconic kind of craziness. John Oritz (burrowing Paul F. Thompkins’ hair and mustache) is the best of the cast at interacting with Reilly, his barely concealed annoyance making for a good double act. Everyone does what their role requires and entertainingly so.

But of course monster movies don’t live or die on the humans but the true stars. Kong looks magnificent; while I thought Peter Jackson’s version to be an interesting and valid interpretation, I’m glad Kong is back to his traditional 90% gorilla/10% human form, and I like this Kong’s Wreck-It Ralph-proportioned hands. And the effects used to bring him to life is perhaps the best in the genre’s history.

Character wise, he’s a bit more an enigma as his defining character trait, being really horny, has been removed. This is a Kong for millennials, who respects women’s boundaries and is a protector of nature. He still gets angry and steps (and maybe eats) on people like the Kong we love. Indeed, despite being the hero of the film, Kong kills a lot of people, and not just characters coded as ‘bad.’ While some parents may disagree, this was a good choice: as Ingmar Bergman said of stars, monsters (even heroic ones) need an element of danger.

As for the rest of the beasts, the Skullcrawlers don’t have the presence or personality of the MUTOs but are up to the role of main antagonists, and certainty have a unique and memorable appearance. The most visually impressive creature is the giant stick bug, but my favorite of the new creatures is the Mother Longlegs spider, with its towering legs disguised as trees and kills a solider in a surprisingly gruesome way for a PG-13 film.

All in all, I give Kong: Skull Island 4 out of 5 bananas.

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