First of all, I’d like to say that I groaned hard at the trailer for Geostorm (2017), and that ‘What A Wonderful World’ hasn’t been used well in a movie since fucking Madagascar (2005). That said, Kong: Skull Island (2017), which is what I’m sure most people have assumed by now is the continuation of our newest Hollywood franchise after Godzilla (2014), is a movie that actually does make good use of tonal irony, and in doing so takes back the monster movie genre in a way that the latter completely failed to do.
We open the movie in the same exact way as Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back (1997, and soon to be 2017), and the entire tone of the movie is set. After a young Hank Marlow (Will Brittain) falls from his crashing WWII plane to the surface of Skull Island and a brief yet fun swordfight, the movie wastes no time in treating the audience to its first glimpse of the titular Kong.
So okay, before I get into more plot stuff, I’m just gonna gush for a second and repeat myself about how this movie got right everything that Godzilla didn’t. ‘Cause that movie was garbage, and this one was really good. It knows it, too. It knows it and it lays it all out for you right away, letting you get hyped on the King’s massive forearms extending from a damn volcano. “This movie is way better than Godzilla,” it says. “We know why you’re here, and we’re going to actually let you see the monster and watch its fights.”
Go forward in time to 1973, when America is just pulling out of Vietnam. Bill Randa (John Goodman), an eccentric scientist/conspiracy theorist, joins us onscreen, delivering a line about how there’ll “never be a more screwed up time in Washington,” (haaaaaaaaaa, *drinks*). Randa and his partner Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) appeal to some government guy that they should get funding for an expedition to the newly discovered Skull Island, which before satellites had only been talked about in legends. Making the point that America should get there before they lose what could be the next Space Race, the mapping journey is underway, with the addition of Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).
Kong’s got an all-star cast. And it’s no coincidence that a lot of them are comedy veterans, or if not, they’ve dabbled in the art. Tom Hiddleston, who I’ve liked since Crimson Peak (2015), plays Captain James Conrad, who’s introduced to us like he’s the superhero Hiddleston wishes he was playing in The Avengers franchise. Brie Larson is the team’s wide-eyed photographer, who’s ready to set aside better-paying jobs for ones that can make a difference in the world, (slight groan there. I love Hiddleston and Larson, but they’re definitely the obligatory cookie cutter white people of this movie.) And of course, John C. Reilly joins us as the aged Hank Marlow in one of his most appealing performances yet.
It’s easy to let an ensemble cast of this magnitude bog down the writing. We’ve learned from Rogue One (2016) that sometimes all you need to have one succeed is a semblance of likeability from each character, and clear motivations for why they’re in the film. Kong pulls this off, and then some. Samuel Jackson’s Packard, a character who never wanted to leave the war, is particularly convincing, with surface-level intentions that are laid out clearly through dialogue, but are easily construed as darker and more corrupt when you read his facial expressions.
When the gang gets to the island, they start dropping bombs, and it’s just too fun to watch Kong lay into people who are messing with his space. Every monster battle in this movie is as gripping as it is brutal, and if you were as disappointed as I was by Godzilla’s side-stepping around the action, Skull Island more than makes up for it. In terms of tone and action, Kong succeeds in all the areas that Jurassic World (2015) did, but more convincingly, without one-note edge-lord characters, AND without being grossly misogynistic, (though it doesn’t escape the occasional “See? Girls can be tough TOO,” trope.)
This newest iteration of King Kong further separates itself throughout the film from the aughts’ onslaught of dark reboots by comparing itself to Peter Jackson’s 2005 take on the character. Skull Island’s Kong has a character design more closely resembling the one from the original 1933 movie, and a campier character overall in his action packed actions. While Jackson’s silverback design worked well for the more realistic take, a rework was needed for the just-a-good-time-at-the-movies feel of this one. Kong’s comparisons to the universe that preceded it continue when our hero expeditionists find the island natives. For a second we’re afraid that the movie is going to follow its predecessor’s footsteps of a barbaric and offensive portrayal before the rug is swept out from under us and we’re given a peace-loving people that have taken John C. Reilly’s character in with open arms.
In keeping with the monster movie tone, Kong is a comedy in disguise. There’s a rule in comedy television, where if I’m remembering my university classes correctly, you need to have ten jokes per minute of screenplay. If you took that ratio and applied it to a feature length, this film would meet the quota, (and how could you not, with Reilly in the cast.) With fights you’re meant to laugh at, and scene establishing fonts too edgy to take seriously, this is a movie so aware of what it’s supposed to be that there’s a Doctor Steve Brule reference on the back of Marlow’s jacket. The movie continues this way until it does the song and dance that musicals do, where the third act becomes more extreme, more serious, as the climax is built up to, until we’re given more jokes at the end for our no-longer-on-the-edge-of-our-seats release.
I think I’ve typed out all the points I jotted down in my notes now save for the soundtrack, which while obligatorily Vietnam, is never forced, and mostly used diegetically, where a character will be listening to ‘Bad Moon Rising,’ and so it plays on the screen. It’s refreshing, people! And everybody loves a soundtrack that includes Bowie.
So yeah! Needless to say, I liked Kong: Skull Island. Also, small spoiler alert for my next comment: I love the new trend where the straight duo that’s probably gonna be a couple in the movie never ends up having a big dramatic kiss, and I hope it continues.
Stay until after the credits!