Kong certainly has a rich cinematic history. Since its first appearance in 1933, there’s been a total of seven King Kong films and Kong: Skull Island becomes the eighth. The last incarnation came in 2005 – Peter Jackson’s King Kong was an emotive experience filled with guilty pleasure moments although it was overly long.
Rebooted to coincide with the shared monsters universe set by Godzilla back in 2014, Kong: Skull Island certainly delivers on the excitement but is let down by other factors.
“This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.” – Bill Randa
Kong: Skull Island is essentially Apocalypse Now but with monsters. Paying an authentic homage to Coppola’s brilliant film and the novel that inspired it (Heart of Darkness), Kong: Skull Island lays the fundamental groundwork.
The events of the Vietnam War are embedded into the film, serving as a clever euphemism. The location may be different but the same issues still apply – a group of explorers and American Soldiers in unknown territory. The film installs a sense of peril and fear where terror could lurk anywhere in the dense jungle conditions. In fact you could go as far as saying the creatures on the island are a substitute for the Viet Cong, defending their territory when they feel threatened. But on the other hand, the film also highlights the American bravado. Similar to the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now, the helicopter brigade swarm in, dropping bombs to analyse the surface. The bombastic classical score of “Ride of the Valkyries” is swapped out for 70s popular music. This world building that takes place helps to sell Kong: Skull Island to us. This is a world where nature is not afraid of fighting back. It taps into the aftermath of the war and world politics using a diverse set of characters and their various viewpoints. It takes advantage of characters such as Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who captures the otherworldly nature through her camera lens, becoming a snapshot in time on a land that time forgot. Considering this is the first monster film to really utilise its setting, it positively works in its favour.
The great thing about Kong: Skull island is that it wastes no time in revealing Kong and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts certainly leaves his mark. In contrast to Gareth Edwards Godzilla where the reveal was slower more in the style of Jaws, Kong is revealed in all its glory within thirty minutes of the film in spectacular fashion. You can tell this was a deliberate choice, thrusting the audience into the heart of the action.
Denzel Washington famously once said in Training Day that “King Kong ain’t got shit on me.” Well after looking at Kong, he might want to rethink those words! Kong is every bit the predatory animal, thanks to the motion capture performance of Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell. Kong’s size is played up for dramatic effect. Kong is lean, brutal and mobile, comfortable moving around on two feet. To be in awe of such a creature, the human race are like ants in comparison.
Where Kong: Skull Island may falter comes down to its emotional heart. If there’s one thing that Peter Jackson’s version accomplished despite its lengthy runtime is that establishment to care about Kong. Despite the threats Kong encountered, the famous line “it was beauty that killed the beast” epitomizes the doomed relationship and the misunderstanding for the creature. Kong: Skull Island takes a different approach. This is largely because Kong: Skull Island is rewriting its own history, not relying on the memorable scenes from the 1933 classic to drive the film, thus giving us a fresh take. However Kong’s emotional response can be a little ambiguous and undefined, depending on which character he came into contact with. The empathy is sacrificed for the impressive visual effects and action. Kong: Skull Island is more concerned with showcasing Kong and his ‘superman punch’ dominance and who really is king of the island.
“It’s time to show Kong that man is king!” – Preston Packard
Now if you’re expecting some interesting character development then sadly this is where Kong: Skull Island fails. It’s actually woeful.
There’s too many characters for the audience to follow cohesively nor when they’re picked off one by one, we simply do not care about them. Their wafer-thin development operates like the red shirts from Star Trek, only there to serve a clear purpose. Now there’s plenty of films which operate perfectly as an ensemble with minimal development – Rogue One (to a certain extent), The Expendables and even The Fast and the Furious franchise. But in Kong: Skull Island, the time divided between characters is oddly arranged, focusing on three different set of groups spread out across the island and neither group excels other than to showcase a convenience when they encounter new species. The division also doesn’t help in terms of the film’s pacing, often killing the momentum. It’s very easy to lose interest and in reality, the group should have been together as a whole so it could retain its focus.
But there’s a positive aspect from Kong: Skull Island. The standout performer from the film belongs to Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard. Yes Samuel delivers your typical performance that you expect from him but when the film allows him to, he offers something dramatic and substantial, something he’s always been fully capable of. Out of the entire cast, he certainly felt defined in comparison to Hiddleston’s Conrad where he looked mostly out-of-place and sadly miscast.
Packard’s determination to take down Kong stems from the aftermath of the Vietnam war. He’s a celebrated and decorated war hero but is leaving the war “unfinished”. His dissatisfaction is demonstrated in one crucial scene where he questions his legacy whilst staring at his medals. He jumps at the opportunity to continue his war efforts when assigned to Monarch’s expedition to the uncharted island. When the helicopters are brought down by Kong and he loses the majority of his men, it starts a chain reaction whereby he begins to chart the course for the ultimate showdown to face Kong.
The references of Apocalypse Now is continued through Packard, delivering an insane performance that’s reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Packard is someone who abandons logic and safety to go on a vendetta mission. It’s in that moment where the comparisons go further – this is essentially Moby Dick with Packard being the 70s version of Captain Ahab.
He doesn’t lose a leg like Ahab did but the dead soldiers at the hands of Kong is a permanent and scaring reminder. It turns into an obsession. He stares into the eyes of the beast witnessing its full power and destruction. When the soldiers are running for their lives and seeking cover, he watches on completely not fazed. It strongly imprints on his mind and suddenly a new mission evolves. This is not a battle just to make it off the island in one piece. This is not a battle to discover why Monarch lied about the expedition and the other secrets they know. This is a battle of self-preservation. It doesn’t matter what Kong’s intentions were, this is a showcase for man to display they’re the dominant species. This concept alone not only drives his war hungry personality to finish the job but drives the film itself. This is one war he doesn’t want to lose.
This attitude is contrasted to Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). At first his character introduction was a distraction. In a similar vein to Predators, Marlow’s introduction comes at a moment where the film largely kept a serious tone to suddenly incorporating light comedic relief and explanation. It removes the self-discovery aspect and immediately takes you out of the moment. But once his character settles, the more valuable he becomes. As a soldier who crashed landed on the island during the Second World War, he’s grown to understand the island and it’s customs. He actively pleads to keep Kong alive because of his alpha male dominance to the ecosystem and the natural order. In Marlow we have the antithesis of Packard’s character, someone who’s sympathetic to Kong and can rationale its intentions. But ultimately, the main difference between Marlow and Packard is simple – Marlow wants to go home, now there’s a strategic plan to get off the island. Packard doesn’t.
When you place these characters into context, Kong: Skull Island is surprisingly enjoyable. There’s no doubt about it – it’s flawed to the hilt. There’s no excuse for the changes in tone, its weird editing to incorporate the split teams and the serious lack of character development. But in essence Kong: Skull Island is the 2017 version of Jurassic World, a film which suffers its own nonsensical issues. Just like how you were there for the dinosaurs, you’re here to see Kong fight. It’s a monster movie after all and the film embraces that, certainly in a visual sense.
Given its links to the monster shared universe, in the worlds of Ken Watanabe – let them fight! The king of the monsters has returned.