“Sometimes an enemy doesn’t exist until you go lookin’ for one.”
In 1962, Japanese film giant Toho released a film built around a clash between 2 monster movie icons; their poster boy, the radioactive titan lizard Godzilla, went toe to toe with the King of Skull Island, the great ape Kong. Godzilla vs. King Kong was a monster movie of epic proportions in the traditional Japanese style, with two actors in rubber suits duking it out for your entertainment. To date, it remains the most highly attended Godzilla cinema release in Japanese box office history, which says as much about it as you need to know for now. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the coalition of Warner Bros, Legendary Pictures and (of course) Toho are building to that battle once again… but we have a couple more stops along the way.
Kong: Skull Island manages to simultaneously serve as a sequel and as a prequel to 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards. We had back to 1973, at the climax of the Vietnam War, and meet Bill Randa (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton), two employees of the mysterious organisation Monarch, who are putting together a survey for undiscovered life (disguised as a geological survey) on the newly-discovered Skull Island, deep in the Pacific Ocean. They team up with former SAS captain, and current mercenary and tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, Avengers: Endgame); photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, Avengers: Endgame) and a crack team of US military soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson, Aven… erm… Glass) and head to the island, where they discover that the island has a king… and that king is Kong.
I’m going to skip straight to the point before I get into the detail that this film is far, far better than I had any idea it was going to be. Much like how its predecessor took the monster movie and elevated the human element, Kong: Skull Island essentially takes the original concept and drops in an old-school US war movie, akin to the likes of Full Metal Jacket, but replaces the Vietcong with giant prehistoric beasts, which I personally am very into as an idea.
This film is beautifully shot; the cinematography and the location choices are mind-blowing. I’m not sure how much of this film was shot on green screen and how much was on location; but the locations really do present a lost world, practically untouched by man, while also invoking the cramped and claustrophobic spaces associated with the Vietnam War. The landscape rolls together convincingly while also appearing to be strikingly different for each set piece; be it a bamboo forest, a murky, algae-filled lake or an open plain filled with titanic skeletons; the human cast are constantly moving through unknown terrain with unknown dangers. I could single out a litany of single shots to praise, like the image of a lone soldier sitting in a forest of mysterious trees, or the image of a Gatling gun mounted to the skull of a long-dead monster; but one shot, of Lt. Col. Packard standing alone on a hilltop, his frame silhouetted by a sea of raging fire in front of him, was so unexpectedly powerful and beautiful that if it was the only image you’d seen from this film, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for an Academy-award worthy war drama, and not a movie about a 100 foot ape fighting giant nightmare lizards.
Speaking of which, following on from Godzilla, the production teams at Legendary have knocked the creature design out of the park once again for Kong: Skull Island. The eponymous ape himself looks magnificent, but is also probably the least interesting creature design in the film. Most of the creatures are much more reminiscent of real, living animals, presumably in order to maintain a tone with the presence of Kong; but that doesn’t mean they don’t lend themselves to some interesting or intriguing design. A giant spider with legs that camouflage against the bamboo was particularly effective as a point of tension (and was, I hasten to add as someone with mild arachnophobia, an utter nightmare); thought my stand-out favourite was of a giant stick insect that looked more like an entire tree (rather than merely just a branch), who despite being mostly inconsequential in terms of the plot; added a nice moment to further demonstrate that the team really were very much out of their depth. The stand-out design does go to the main source of (non-primate) conflict in the shape of the Skullcrawlers; the aforementioned giant, lizard-like abominations that live under the Earth’s surface and hunt those that dwell above. The creature design team, in keeping more in-line with the scale and design of the monsters in Godzilla, departed from the more traditional dinosaur designs for Kong’s gargantuan opponents and settled on a design that is best described as considerably more troubling. Combining elements from various genus types adds an element of the uncanny valley to their design, and the way they move and attack is primal and unsettling – which is exactly what you want from a monster movie like this, frankly.
Kong: Skull Island is very much an ensemble piece; and though there is a certain amount of star power attributed to the actors who are hired separate to Lt. Col. Packard’s unit, enough time is given to establish the archetypes of each character to allow them to feel real, though we’re not provided with enough backstory for each of them to forge a more personal connection to them all. This is particularly important as the group does get split up, which gives everyone the chance to shine (at least for a few moments) and establishes enough character for us to keep track of the basis for their emotional response, though Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) in particular stood out for me in his performance. Every member of the military team represents a different aspect that the after-effects of a conflict like the Vietnam War can have on a solider, but Whigham’s performance combines simmering aggression with quiet reflection in a particularly effective manner. Samuel Jackson’s embodiment of Packard carries a different weight to its aggression, bringing us a dedicated military officer who relishes the opportunity of conflict; a man who is distraught at losing a military conflict and refuses to do it again. Comic relief also comes from multiple avenues, but it will surprise nobody when I say that John C. Reilly (Wreck-It Ralph) takes the lead on that front, well-supported by Thomas Mann (The Highwaymen) in particular; but John Goodman, Corey Hawkins and Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston also take the chance for some of the more obvious gags. Larson and Hiddleston are in full lead-actor mode for this piece, and their chemistry with each other plays well in the narrative without adding an unnecessary romantic angle that this film certainly didn’t require, and I’m glad it wasn’t there.
However, the downside of the ensemble structure is that some characters are reduced to stereotypes, or lost in the mix altogether. While the military unit’s characters are not hurt too badly by that, others are. At one point I had though that John Goodman’s character had been killed at some point when I had blinked, but about 20 minutes later he appeared on screen after a considerable absence. Corey Hawkins also gets a raw deal, being relegated to the background for large parts of the action; often alongside Jing Tian (Pacific Rim: Uprising), who had so little of note to do in relation to the plot that I genuinely cannot remember any stand-out moments she had at all, other than the surprise of seeing a biologist demonstrating a proficiency with a rifle. This is looking like a worrying trend when held up against the under-use of Sally Hawkins in Godzilla, and one that is hopefully addressed in future instalments in a consistent way.
A special mention must go to Tony Kebbell (RocknRolla), who not only spends time going solo as Jack Chapman; but also provided the motion-capture for Kong. Chapman’s narrative as the soldier separated from his unit casts parallels to innumerable war movies that have come before this one and Kebbell plays it well, doing well to portray both his fear and determination to return to his unit, despite shorter visits to him during his ordeal. His work as Kong should also be lauded, and it’s clear his experience doing motion-capture for the Planet Of The Apes series has paid off; Kong’s movements look so natural for a gorilla, despite his gargantuan size; and combined with the incredible quality of the CGI for Kong’s appearance, it’s very easy to suspend one’s disbelief and look upon the so-called 8th Wonder Of The World as a real, living creature.
The action of the piece tries to split itself reasonably equally between human/monster conflict and monster/monster conflict, and it works very well. The human characters are given the opportunity to learn how the ecosystem of the island works over the course of the film, and not always all at the same time; so the stakes of each conflict change based on their actions both in the previous conflict and based on what they’ve learned in the interim. It’s an excellent way of maneuvering the human characters through the more complicated aspects of the island’s ecosystem, while also setting up new goals and scenarios for the conflicts which they find themselves in. The monster /monster conflicts are then also shaped by the human action as well, with Kong in particular having the stakes shifted in every battle, depending on which groups of humans are there and how much they know. It’s a great way to keep the various interactions fresh, and is better handled than it was in Godzilla.
Kong: Skull Island is not a perfect film, and it was not going to win any Academy awards (unless for technical aspects, as it was nominated for Best Visual Effects, and with good reason); but what it does present is an interesting new angle on a Hollywood stalwart, carefully adapted to fit a larger universe. It’s a very enjoyable popcorn movie, with a good heart, incredible visuals and some great performances… and a really, really huge ape, which is what we all came here to see anyway, right?