Kong: Skull Island
dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts
scr. Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly
The original King Kong has an enduring power that is very simple and very direct. It’s like a dream or a fairy tale. Everything is told in a very primal way, and there is a blunt power to the way the film builds to what feels like an inevitable climax. Part of the appeal when King Kong was released had to have been the startling, surreal footage of Kong in motion or Kong fighting other monsters. Willis O’Brien’s work has inspired generations of filmmakers, and little wonder. The images he created resonate through pop culture endlessly, and despite all the technical progress that’s been made since his day, few artists have ever bested the way he gave soul to the creatures he animated.
And that’s the key, really. Soul. If you’re going to make a Kong movie, at the very least, we have to leave the theater feeling something for Kong. While Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake suffers from a number of major issues (coughjimmythecabinboycough), it did indeed create an empathetic Kong. The scene near the end of the film when he ends up sort of accidentally ice skating around on a frozen pond in Central Park is one of the best quiet moments in any film that year. Jackson’s biggest problem was that he was overly reverent of the first film. He was determined to take every moment that he remembered from the very first time he saw the film as a child and capture that moment on the screen. Think about it… think about when you saw a film you love as a child, and you didn’t just watch it. You fell into it. You got lost in it, and you believed completely, and the thing you saw wasn’t just what was onscreen. It was all that other stuff it did to you while you were watching it. That’s what your memory of that movie is. That’s why you love it the way you do. Peter’s movie felt like the King Kong that he’d been carrying around in his head since childhood, and as a result, it’s overstuffed to the breaking point.
Reverent is not an issue that Kong: Skull Island shares. This movie opens during the final days of WWII and then jumps forward to the moment when America is about to pull out of Vietnam completely. How that opening scene connects to the larger film is a nice structure for a movie that is at its best when focused on some genuinely jaw-dropping giant monster mayhem, the likes of which every giant monster fan has dreamed about their whole lives.
Yes. I know they’re not models anymore. I know there’s something tangible and special about seeing fingerprints in the fur of the models, and there’s something very ghostly about stop-motion in general. Seeing where the Laika films are these days, I think stop-motion is as cutting-edge as it ever has been, and you can make beautiful films with it. But I think what filmmakers are doing with performance-driven digital capture work is crazy, and gorgeous when it works, and full of a whole new kind of character. It’s not fair to the artists who have to bring these creatures to life to simply dismiss the kind of work we see here as “just computers.” There’s a big attack scene when the American expedition to the island first arrives, and there are moments where director Jordan Vogt-Roberts puts you in a helicopter as it gets smacked out of the sky by a giant ape, leaving you there for the entire ride down. He makes everything here feel experiential, and he’s careful to make scale an important part of the film. Kong is not just big; he’s outrageous now. He’s massive. And if Kong were the only digital creature in the film, I would declare it a rousing technical accomplishment, one ILM and the other vendors on the film should feel very good about.
Instead, Skull Island is home to an entire insane ecosystem, and pretty much everything on the island seems to be determined to kill the Americans who are stranded there. This gives Vogt-Roberts a chance to stage set pieces that can be described with such colorful names as “Gas Mask Samurai,” “Calamari Combat,” and “Mosquider Madness.” There are a number of major weird new types of things we see here, including the primary “bad guys” of the film, nicknamed “Skullcrawlers” by Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a longtime castaway who agrees to help Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) get everyone off the island. When Vogt-Roberts stages an attack or an encounter with some new species, you can almost feel how giddy he gets at staging this stuff. There is this lovely sense of play to the film. He’s having fun, and why wouldn’t he? Look at the toys he gets to play with. If Peter Jackson’s film feels like it was made by someone who watched the first film about 500 too many times, then Vogt-Roberts has made a movie that feels like it was created by someone who never saw it, but who had King Kong described to them and who just took the good stuff and imagined his own story.
On a business level, Kong: Skull Island does what it needs to do. Unlike the Gareth Edwards Godzilla, this film shows you the monsters up front, then keeps showing them to you, over and over, making sure you get all the giant monsters you could ever hope to get from a movie. Clearly, though, this is the film where Legendary and Warner start to build the bigger crossover world, and if you are interested in any of this, then you should stay to the very end, after the closing credits. My kids, who both have a pretty steady intake of the old Toho kaiju movies, are going to need to take a change of pants to the theater, because they are going to lose control of all bodily functions when they see that post-credits tag. Legendary’s calling their shot, and in this case, I hope they pull it off. I’d like to see what they’re suggesting here, and I certainly think after seeing how they stage all the chaos here, most giant monster fans will feel the same way.
There are some things that Kong: Skull Island does less well. The opening twenty minutes or so is frantic more than anything, and there’s a lot of wobbly exposition that doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m still not entirely sure how this particular combination of characters all end up on those helicopters. Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman are, unsurprisingly, the strongest supporting players here, and they’re having a good time together. John C. Reilly is also absolutely indispensable, and he seems to be setting a tone that is almost a dare to the other actors with the choices he’s making. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson fare a little less well overall, because their characters just don’t quite click. I get what they’re supposed to be, but there’s really nothing there on the page for them. They’re types, not people. That’s true of most of the characters, but the cast (including Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, and Thomas Mann) all struggle to make those types feel at least somewhat lived in.
What really makes the film sing is the inventive energy of all of the giant monster sequences, and that really kicks in right around the time everyone flies through a magic cloud storm system around the island. They get inside that storm, everything gets crazy, and the movie pretty much puts the pedal down and never lets up from that point. Even when Vogt-Roberts finds time for moments of quiet visual poetry (and there are several, a bonus when you’re talking about this kind of film), he does it while he’s constantly pushing everything forward. That’s part of what makes the character stuff less of a complaint than it might normally be for me. They try to give Jackson and Kebbell the biggest arcs of any of the characters, and I was glad to see they didn’t go out of their way to try to make Brie Larson into the “Fay Wray character.” Kong does not seem overly obsessed with her. It never crosses into weird subtext territory.
Instead, the film positions Kong as a protector in general. There is a small native population on the island, and they are protected by Kong and by his ancestors. There are plenty of threats that Kong must face every day, and I love how impressionistic the encounters with the other flora and fauna are. There’s a great creepy spider/mosquito creature attack that is so strange, and so beautifully realized, that it’s almost worth seeing the film just to see this particular aesthetic brought to life. Larry Fong’s photography is terrific, and he has a great way of taking these surreal landscapes and photographing them for heightened emotional impact as well as simple graphic beauty.
I got everything I hoped I would get from this film, and that’s not always the case, especially when you’re dealing with an icon that I feel as strongly about as I do about Kong. I’ve held the actual original Kong puppet in my hand and imagined what it was like when Obie was designing and animating those amazing indelible moments. One of the things that makes King Kong special is how it showed everyone just how far the dream boundaries of movie storytelling could be pushed. King Kong created an Earth that never was, an Earth that was fantastic and beautiful and dangerous, and for almost 100 years now, it’s loomed large as a high watermark for fantasy filmmaking in general.
Simply by virtue of how often Hollywood makes the miraculous mundane, this Kong will never have the same reach as that first film. But it is clear that the makers of this film understand the hold that this character has on our collective pop culture, and they came to play. Buckle up.