Monster movies are a favourite of mine and whilst there are plenty of them about finding a good one is tricky. At the moment it seems to be flavour of the season, everything's getting rebooted from the human based monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and The Mummy) to the beasts (Godzilla, King Kong).
Kong Skull Island is the third King Kong remake, the first film was released in 1933 followed by a remake in 1976 and a second remake in 2005. Of course this could be considered more a reboot than remake as it drops the story of Kong being charmed by an actress/sacrifice and taken back to the human world as an exhibit. This Kong would probably be a little too big for that, his height varied in the 1933 version and the 1976 version, between 40-60ft in point, given as 50ft officially for the original. I the 2005 version he was much smaller, 25ft and the last of his kind, fictional species Megaprimatus kong evolved from the Gigantopithecus. Of the four versions the 2005 gives us a Kong most like a gorilla, the 1933, 1976 and 2017 version give us an upright Kong who frequently moves on two feet.
The Kong of Kong: Skull Island is a whopping 100 feet tall. It looks and sounds impressive but given this Kong is meant to battle Godzilla one day he's still not big enough given the latest Godzilla is an insane 350 feet tall. However, this Kong exists in the 70s, that Godzilla is in 2014 and it is mentioned that Kong is still growing, although one wonders at exactly what point will he be considered to be a pensioner? And how big can Kong grow? Like 2005's version this Kong is also the last of its species probably just as well as one wonders how an island could sustain such large beasts for so long especially since judging from what Kong eats in this movie, they're carnivorous.
Kong: Skull Island drops the eighth wonder of the world, Hollywood attraction gimmick and instead follows the familiar island adventurers mystery crossed with 70s Vietnam films. It's a similar plot to The Lost World, Jurassic Park: The Lost World and The Land That People Forgot in that we have adventurers stumbling into an ancient world where they don't belong and getting picked off one by one. In the vein of the previous Kong films and The Lost World and The Land That People Forgot there is also a tribal presence on the island that frankly doesn't add much to the plot.
The tribe on this island still worship Kong as a protector and a god but they thankfully aren't sterotyped into seeking to sacrifice the only noticeably present female to this deity.
Brie Larson plays anti-war photographer Mason Weaver who joins the crew in the hopes of exposing their operation as a corrupt military one and not the simple island mapping one they claim it to be. She's shoehorned into a 'yes I'm a woman' moment but mercifully its brief and passed quickly for laughs with one man stating 'Mason Weaver is a woman'. She then makes her stance on the war very clear to Samuel L Jackson's Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard and yet nothing is said in opposition to her. We are then treated to scenes of the soldiers goofing off on the ship and posing quite happily for this photojournalist who openly states her opposition to the war several times. Whilst there is one other female in the film, biologist San Lin played by rising star Jing Tian who's about to become a monster movie veteran with The Wall already under her belt and the Pacific Rim sequel Uprising soon to follow, Mason Weaver is the clear female lead.
Unfortunately, Mason doesn't offer us much and spends most of the movie taking photographs, posing or staring in awe at Kong (same thing sometimes) and demonstrating that mucky adventurers involving running for your life from monsters through lakes and sulphuric pits and explosions won't affect your hair or makeup or dampen your clothes for long (sigh).
One consolation is that whilst Mason's outfit is certainly flattering it does border on the side of practical rather than existing for shameless eye candy, it's a stepup for female leads but not much. Mason channels Ann Darrow/Dwan slightly with a few connecting moments with Kong. He sees her try to save a giant water buffalo creatue by vainly trying to lift the chopper its stuck under before Kong intervenes, then they make eye contact beneath the Northern Lights with Tom Hiddleston's James Conrad observing and finally Kong saves her after inadvertantly causing her to fly off a hill and fall unconscious into the lake. These moments whilst sweet seem a little forced too as if to appease the crowds familiar with the Darrow Kong relationship.
Mason is no fragile innocent like Darrow still hoping for the silver lining Hollywood lifestyle, she's meant to be hardened from her experiences with war, she's come to expose the darkness of the military not to bond with nature.
Tom Hiddleston's leads the cast as James Conrad a former SAS captain who is hired by John Goodman's William Randa to be a tracker although Randa doesn't make it clear what exactly Conrad is meant to be tracking. Unashamedly named for Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, James Conrad is presented to us as a neutral presence, a man who risks the dangers of the island for money. His motivation doesn't make much sense given he seems a lot smarter than that and he doesn't hint at any plans for the money. Randa's major red flag to Conrad is needing a tracker for an unexplored terrain and yet Conrad sees it as an opportunity for more cash rather than considering the possibility that Randa knows more than he's saying.
Maybe Conrad simply doesn't care what Randa knows or he has nothing else to occupy his attention. He didn't go home after the war and maybe there's a reason for that. I like Tom Hiddleston as an actor but the role of Conrad really should have went to someone older, I know soldiers were young and a war like the Vietnam war can age and make someone jaded very quickly but I wasn't buying it with Conrad I feel his cynicism and experience belonged to someone older. Also, when facing off against Samuel L Jackson's Colonel Conrad's youth really showed and though he diffused a potentially dangerous situation it was by surrendering and backing off.
Conrad and Mason show one of two potential love stories in the film, the second is between Jing Tiang's San Lin and Corey Hawkins' Houston Brooks. Neither romance gets much development or a realisation, with the former it's some 'I'm as tough as you' facing off and with the latter it's light flirtation that is never quite realised. Mason can't be a damsel so Conrad can't be her knight and that's good and modern but hell they're not anything else either.
Kong: Skull Island's greatest asset is Kong and its greatest weakness is its human characters. Most are cannon fodder and even those that aren't it honestly wouldn't matter if they were missing. If Mason or Conrad had bit the dust I don't think too many people would have cared. The only standout roles are Samuel L Jackson's version of Captain Ahab, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard who can't escape the warzone even when swapping Vietnam for Skull Island and views Kong as an enemy to be eliminated, John C Reilly's show stealing Hank Marlow (named for Heart of Darkness protagonist Marlow), and Shea Whigham's Captain Earl Cole who spends the adventure largely unfazed, pragmatic and oddly practical.
Preston Packard is the mighty hunter who heads the Sky Devils and tries to lead them to victory on the island. He sees Kong as a villain, he can't accept him as a simple beast nor can he accept that he and his men are the ones who trespassed in Kong's land and offered violence first. Like Robert Shaw's Quint in Jaws he personifies his enemy and makes the fight personal which leads to a violent end. It's an unsubtle allegory of the war effort as well, how do you justify the violence when you are the invader? Samuel L Jackson plays the role in a memorable OTT fashion channelling a little of Bible quoting Jules from Pulp Fiction. His time on the island drives him to madness, for him there is no escape, that's the same as desertion and abandoning a cause, he wants to finish what he started with Kong because he couldn't finish Vietnam.
Hank Marlow is the guide to the island, a convenient character to explain the nature of Kong, the underground lizard monsters and the mute natives. Trapped on the island since the 40s when he and a Japanese pilot crashlanded there and put aside their differences for survival. He formed a friendship with the Japanese pilot, Gunpei Ikari and talks of his loss of his 'brother' to the lizard creatures sorrowfully. He uses Gunpei's sword and brings it home with him showing how friendship and brotherhood can surpass race and cultural hatred when one takes the war away. John C Reilly plays his character as crazy from solitude for laughs, it's pitiful and horrifying thinking of all that he missed stuck on the island, alone after Gunpei's death save for the silent natives and there are touches of genuine sorrow when he talks of his wife and son but Kong avoids the darkness of that sorrow by dressing it up humorously in a mad, comical package. Marlow is easily the most interesting character in this film and he brings much of the needed comic relief.
Captain Earl Cole brings the rest of the comic relief as a deadpan dry humoured captain who is perhaps a little uneducated. He plays off against Jason Mitchell's warrant officer Glenn Mills. They trade off insults but there's a believable friendship there. Cole has a different view of the world to everyone else and seems oblivious to the horror of the island. After the bloody battle between Kong and the helicopters Cole is the only one left with an appetite. He also humorously doesn't get the story of the mouse, the lion and the thorn, having been told by his mother that the mouse used the thorn to kill the lion. It sums up Cole in a nutshell, he has his own belief of how the world works and he's content with it and frankly it serves him better than his friends. Cole lasts right until the end when he tries and fails to make a stand against the 'big one', the biggest lizard monster on the island which is hinted at from the moment we meet Marlow. Cole tries to blow himself up with the monster but it uses its tail to bat Cole away causing him to detonate vainly against a mountain instead. His character was probably worthier of a better death but in a way it did make sense, Cole never quite got anything right throughout the film so why should he get his sacrifice right either. He's another statistic and another member of the Sky Devils who dies in a war on the island that they can't possibly win.
The Sky Devils never really left Vietnam, they seemed to escape the violence and death only to find it on Skull Island. Of the devils only Glenn Mills and Reg Slivko, the youngest two, make it off alive.
Kong is heavy of the metaphors and symbolism. It's set during the 70s, some of the leads are soldiers from the Vietnam War, Skull island is much like Vietnam, an unfamilar jungle terrain where the natives outnumber you and you don't know your enemy. It's very critical of the war effort, the soldiers who survive are the youngest, ones who can yet change their ways and learn from their mistakes, the woman who is against the war, the former captain who played netural between the soldiers and civilians, and the scientists who whilst being partially responsible for leading the soldiers onto the island without all the information, are presented as civilians neutral to the war effort.
Even Randa must be sacrificed because whilst he's not a part of the war he part of the government, the same establishment that initially endorsed the war. Also, he led the group to the island knowing what could be on it, he deceived everyone and demanded the explosions that awoke Kong and the lizards and caused the chaos. Randa may not have been part of the Vietnam War but he started the Skull Island War.
As a monster movie it delivers, you don't have to wait to see Kong in this film, there is plenty of Kong and he is glorious. The CGI is almost to perfection. The other island creatures are a mismash of tributes to the 1933's monster foes for Kong and Studio Ghibli beasts, we have pterosaur like creatures, giant spiders with bamboo legs, a log beast, a giant water buffalo and skull headed lizards called Skullcrawlers led by an alpha nicknamed Ramarak or 'the big one'. The film continously hints at Kong's faceoff againsnt Ramarak and finally delivers near the end where Kong unsurprisingly defeats the giant lizard thus liberating the natives from their ancient foe and proving that he is evolving out of childhood and is worthy of a greater foe.
It's hard to imagine how this is going to lead to a Kong Versus Godzilla. As established Kong is going to be quite old when he faces Godzilla and unless he grows 200 feet in those 40 odd years then he's going to be quite small too. Also, Godzilla and Kong both seem to be established as heroic beasts, Godzilla saved the people from the Mutos and Kong saved them from the lizard people so why should they be enemies? Is it because Kong fights lizards? Does the mysterious Monarch branch of the government pull them together or is it another foe? The secret ending of Kong hinted at Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah? Do we even need another Kong Versus Godzilla? Maybe because it's the most attended Godzilla film to date people are sensing there's money in it.
Overall it's a good movie, the CGI is top notch, it's a good length, you don't feel the time pass and the action is nonstop. It's a good tribute to King Kong who was the first of the monsters in monster movies and it's a nice reboot. I liked the time period and the idea of soldiers taken from the Vietnam War to go to Skull island. A mysterious monster island adventure is my favourite kind of genre and it did deliver on that. I'll admit I still favour Peter Jackson's version for that but I'll agree it's much too long and unnecessarily so, it's hard to find the will to rewatch it knowing that.
The 2005 version had much more fleshed out characters and more monsters and because the characters were fleshed out they were much more likeable and it's easier to empathise with innocent sailors and wannabe Hollywood stars than hardened soldiers who pick violence over reasoning. Also, for me, Jack Black's Carl Denham describing the island at the start of the film and building the potential and mystery was far more gripping than John Goodman's William Randa's attempts at it. Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow might have be presented as a damsel in distress but she was preferrable to Mason Weaver. Ann's bond with Kong with stronger, her sympathy and empathy for Kong was always felt and believable and her sweet and innocent outlook on life was always played as an asset not a weakness. Ann might not have been to warzones but she still toughed it out on an island full of monsters and came out the other side stronger for it.