First, an admission: I’m a sucker for anything with giant creatures in exotic locations. My weak spot for this cultivated early on in childhood, watching the original King Kong, Godzilla, Mothra, and all those Greek Mythology movies such Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans. They would always appear annually in bulk, in marathons on TCM, AMC, or the Sci-Fi Channel. The grief over missed portions of a film as my father happened across one already thirty-minutes in was quickly allayed by his reassuring words: “Don’t worry, they’re playing all weekend.” A whole weekend!?
So, when Hollywood rings the bell with the latest Kong: Skull Island, my Pavlovian instincts kick in. This iteration of the multiple-reimagined great ape tale is set in 1973, in the closing days of the Vietnam War. Quack government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) and geologist Houston Brookes (Corey Hawkins) of the ominously named “Monarch” program coax a U.S. Senator into granting them a military escort to “Skull Island,” a recent satellite-discovered place where “myth and science meet”. A cinematically jingoistic Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is put in charge of the operation, which also includes British merc James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). It also includes a long list of other characters in a film that mercurially leaps from compelling to frequently frustrating in its hyper-ensembled storytelling.
Does the film do anything different from past versions? Fundamentally, no. It does flirt, however, with a novel re-imagining in multiple ways.
It refrains, for instance, from the traditional third-act relocation from Kong’s island to New York City. Instead the movie keeps the action squarely on the titular locale. It also goes for an homage setting with obvious allusions to Apocalypse Now and Platoon. New for Kong perhaps, but not for an industry gripped by the same pop-culture nostalgia that puts Blue Swede songs in films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Queen lyrics in Suicide Squad. What, then, would a Vietnam war film be without some Creedence Clearwater Revival? These are some nice touches, however, that give the retro world of the film a great vibe.
Ultimately, it’s clear this is all part of the same nostalgia driven, reboot obsessed, cinematic universe franchising Hollywood culture. And so, of course, this film has been devised as part of an inevitable Warner Brothers “MonsterVerse,” a cinematic-universe encompassing the 2014 Godzilla reboot that is working its way up to a cinematic climax: Godzilla versus Kong, coming to theaters in 2020.
As with the Gareth Edward-directed 2014 sibling film Godzilla, the first of this nascent cinematic universe, Kong: Skull Island is playing its part in the industry-wide hunt for the new George Lucas by giving blockbuster novice Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of a 2013 low budget indie dramedy film Kings of Summer, the helm of his first big franchise film. All well and good, but, in what must be deliberate contrast to Peter Jackson’s sluggish 2005 King Kong—a film, I’ll admit, I enjoyed (again I’m a sucker)—Kong: Skull Island blitzes along at a whirlwind pace; it has little time to develop any of the numerous characters in the film. Here you might quibble with the absurdity of demanding character development in a movie about a giant ape. I caught myself thinking this and made a mental note of the absurdity.
But you can’t help it since this movie has so many characters! And it wants to insist it is character-driven and, I suppose, it does put forth an intriguing enough effort. The character binaries are all there: war dog Samuel L. Jackson (Packard) on one hand, peacenik journo Brie Larson (Weaver) on the other. “You’re the reason we lost the war,” Packard alleges of Mason. In theory, he’s slipping further into an Ahab-like quest for revenge against Kong; the death of the colossal creature is his chance to reclaim the triumphant victory denied him by the Vietnam pullout.
This theme, however, is not serviced enough by the story, as Larson’s Mason Weaver has gradually less and less to do throughout the film except take constant photographs. When the time comes around for Kong and the new Fay Wray to share a touching moment, it seems unearned.
Theoretically, I think this should have gone the direction of Packard versus Mason. Then Hiddleston’s Great White British Hunter guy (Conrad) could be positioned somewhere between the two as the disillusioned warrior who would eventually would go full T. E. Lawrence and side with Mason and the natives against Packard, defending Kong, who protects the island’s mystical natural balance. This was the idea, I think, but its lost in the dust cloud of this roadrunner of a movie. The character dynamics start getting divided up among the film’s robust ensemble and they never manage to coalesce into convincing drama.
But I digress; I’m off and away again on the character dimensions of a film whose final antagonist, Kong’s ultimate nemesis, is something resembling a giant zombie-lizard-vulture. This is what we came for anyway, in the end: the primal satisfaction of seeing fantastic beasts fight to the death. Nobody should be too good for this, says my marathon-TV-and-movie-watching inner child. Ring away at the bell, Hollywood, and I’ll show up—at least for now.