Kong: Skull Island is the second movie in Legendary Entertainment’s new MonsterVerse – their attempt to bring American-style Japanese kaiju (monster) films into an MCU or DCU type continuum. As a first movie, 2014’s Godzilla (2014) (read my review here) was more than serviceable (certainly garnering more praise on average than, say, DC’s opener in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). For the sophomore effort, Kong has the advantage of a made-in-America monster that Godzilla doesn’t, and while both are played for the warm and fuzzy at times (really, they’re our friends), it’s a bit easier to buy from a gigantic and intelligent mammal than it is from a radiation-breathing-atomic-bomb-begat giant lizard. So, how does Kong fare?
The movie opens with a brief prelude from 1944 that pitches two pilots – an American and a Japanese – against one another, each shooting the other out of the sky. On the ground, they fight, and just as it looks like one will kill the other, they’re interrupted – Kong has come to take a look. This is an interesting choice by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts in only his second feature gig (the first being 2013’s The Kings of Summer) – showing the monster right up front is rarely a good idea, as it tends to remove a lot of the suspense that keeps audiences in their seats. This is repeated later in the movie, when we shift to the movie’s present day (more on the timeline below), but it actually does work here – see, much like in Godzilla, it turns out that maybe, just maybe, the title monster isn’t the real bad guy.
Shift to Washington, where Monarch scientists Bill Randa [John Goodman] and Houston Brooks [Corey Hawkins] are trying to get last minute funding to save their organization (and anyone who has seen Godzilla knows that it’s still around forty years later, so there is that – Monarch is the multi-national agency with a keen interest in MUTOs – massive unidentified terrestrial organisms). After getting permission to survey a previously unknown island recently exposed by Landsat pass-overs, they enlist the aid of the US Army’s finest, led by Colonel Preston Packard [Samuel L. Jackson playing one of his standard roles]. He’s head of an Air Cavalry unit, which lends itself to a nice – if obvious – in-joke later in the film: when Randa talks about calling in the cavalry, Packard replies, “I am the cavalry.” When they arrive at the island, the group starts dropping seismic charges in order to better map the lay of the land, something that awakens…things. As a character they meet later on the island tells them, “you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight.” And several fights do, indeed, ensue.
In addition to the Monarch reference, there are some other connections between the two movies. Most aren’t revealed until later, so I won’t go into details here. Suffice to say that they are somewhat sparse, largely because of the timing and setting of this film – 1973, on a Skull Island that is only being mapped for the first time. In the 2014 timeline of Godzilla, this is forty years in the past (now, lest you think I’m not up-to-date on things daikaiju (that’s BIG monster, for those keeping track), lore would have it that Godzilla was a result of American atomic bomb tests in the south Pacific. This, of course, means that he also predates Kong. Basically, Godzilla rises, shit happens that we get in flashback at the beginning of Godzilla, then we cut to a young Kong in 1973 getting his first taste of “modern” man, and then back to the current iteration of Godzilla. Make sense?). There are also homages to the history of the King Kong franchise in the setting, the makeup of the crew that heads to the island, and in some of the things they find there. Again, I hesitate to go into too much detail, but do keep an eye out for where the military guys set up their .50 caliber machine gun – nice shout out to King Kong (1933). And Randa’s interest in monsters has a pretty cool connection with the opening scenes of Godzilla. Enough said.
The movie is chockablock with top talent, with John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson heading the list, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson as an ex-SAS captain and a war photojournalist respectively in a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship, and Corey Hawkins as a Hollow-Earther who is assisting Goodman. And we get a wonderful turn from John C. Reilly, playing Lt. Hank Marlow, a man who has been on the island for some time. He’s not had much opportunity to speak for several years, and watching Reilly play him to the twitchy hilt is a pleasure. At one point, he tells another character that he’s not sure if he’s speaking out loud or not, and upon being assured that he is, smiles broadly and says, “I’m going to stab you by the end of the night.” Apropos of nothing. But amusing. I admire Reilly for his work over the years, and it seems to me that he had a lot of fun playing this character.
The real star of the show, however, is the giant gorilla. Kong gets plenty of screen time – more, in fact, than I’m used to seeing in these sorts of monster movies – and the CG used to bring him to life is a huge improvement over shoddy ape suits and creative camera angles. I do miss Ray Harryhausen’s work, though. There is the requisite amount of action, some basic and serviceable character development for those likely to make later appearances in the MonsterVerse, and enough big monster action to make most kaiju fans happy. No, it isn’t Logan, but not much so far this year is. However, if what you’re looking for is a largely inoffensive and entertaining movie, then Kong might just fit the bill.
Oh, and this is important: stay until the credits are over…
Steve’s Rating: (6.5 / 10)
A good monster movie, and a nice bit of entertainment-lite. Good turns by John C. Reilly, and by Samuel L. Jackson playing, largely, Samuel L. Jackson.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly (screenplay); John Gatins (story by)
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins
Release Date: March 10, 2017
MPAA Rating: PG-13