Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.
King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.
In kaiju movies, the giant monster is the star of the show. No matter how large and varied the cast, the human characters are mainly there to anchor the story, not to steal the the big guy’s thunder. And if two kaiju decide to throw down in the middle of downtown, the humans had better get their puny selves out of the way, assuming they want to live. Or as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa from the 2014 Godzilla kept begging the military, “Let them fight.” King Kong is Hollywood’s most venerable movie monster. But the giant ape of Kong: Skull Island doesn’t quite fit into the established pattern of Hollywood’s Kong remakes. This Kong belongs to the MonsterVerse, and must be able to interact with Japan’s king of kaiju on an equal footing. That means the bigger he is, the better.
This also means the removal of the titular character’s classic “beauty and the beast” storyline. As the film’s trailer mentions, our hero keeps to himself, mostly. And he’s provoked into fighting the humans only because they keep dropping bombs on his home. This Kong is closer to Godzilla when he’s acting as curmudgeonly protector of the Earth than to the original besotted leading man envisioned by Merian C. Cooper. Consequently, there are no leading lady roles similar to those played by Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts in their respective remakes. Kong is essentially a misunderstood tough guy who maintains an icy exterior, but with no one left to share an intimate connection. As if to underline this point, the human characters are in one scene forced to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the film’s monstrous baddies while amongst the skeletal remains of Kong’s family. Against great odds, Kong is fighting to remain the last of his kind.
Given the emotional gulf between super-ape and humans, the film’s hugely talented cast is mainly there to lend their considerable star power to the script’s two dimensional characters. The story is set in 1973, so it fills some of the backstory of Monarch, the organization founded in 1954 to study Godzilla. Monarch has convinced the U.S. government to fund an expedition to Skull Island. Their scientists are burdened with much of the expository dialogue, which is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the theories first expounded in the 2014 film. They’re accompanied by a military escort composed of a helicopter squadron who served in the Vietnam War.
The story turns into a ham-fisted message about the War, during which U.S. forces were beginning to withdraw from Vietnam that year. Squadron leader Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) blames the liberal media back home for America losing the War. Except that America didn’t lose, he claims, they exited. His opposite, photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), only confirms Packard’s suspicions when she proudly proclaims herself to be an “anti-war photographer.” WTF? How the heck did she get on this expedition? Caught in between these two extremes is world-weary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS officer who’s on the expedition because Monarch promised him a big fat paycheck to act as the group’s tracker. Guess who he sides with later on when Packard and Weaver inevitably come to loggerheads?
Once the expedition reaches Skull Island, the cinematography starts to ape (no pun intended) Apocalypse Now, and the soundtrack blasts 70s protest music. Everything goes pear shaped when Kong shows up and takes exception to the military's habit of stomping around with guns blazing. But some sanity is restored when Hank Marlow (a delightfully goofy John C. Reilly) appears with a dozen Skull Island natives (in only a marginally better portrayal, since they don’t try to sacrifice anyone to Kong) to act as the voice of wisdom. His jovial reaction to everything injects a much needed dose of levity to the dour proceedings. A WW II aviator marooned on Skull Island for the last 28 years, Marlow naturally asks one soldier if America won the War. To which he receives the laconic response “which one?”
But everyone’s here to gawk at the king, while of course getting stomped on, torn apart, or eaten by the local mega-sized megafauna. And Kong is certainly impressive to behold. The creature design hearkens back to the chimp-gorilla hybrid with an upright human gait from 1933, instead of later attempts to make Kong look like an oversized gorilla. This allows mo-cap actor Terry Notary to imbue Kong with a humanlike swagger. If the spectacular kaiju-style battle that ends the film is any indication, this Kong is being promoted to the rank of badass, and getting ready to take on Godzilla.