I went into the opening of Kong: Skull Island with something of a prediction in mind. Given that the most vociferous public complaints about Gareth Edwards’ 2014 take on Godzilla were … well, the dearth of GODZILLA scenes, it seemed only natural that Legendary’s reaction would be to get the whole King Kong reveal out of the way almost immediately in this film. And yep—that was exactly right. The audience meets Kong quickly, and often. There are avenues to criticize Kong: Skull Island, but “lack of Kong” is not going to be one of them.
This is the second film is Legendary’s “MonsterVerse,” which began with Godzilla and is slated to continue with at least two more films: Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019 and Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. It is of course another film studio’s attempt to tap into the seemingly endless money engine of successful “cinematic universes,” as Marvel Studios can attest to. However, the corresponding films from DC have proven that this is much easier said than done.
Kong: Skull Island is not a complex film, and it doesn’t really deserve “complex analysis.” It’s a calculated popcorn action movie and a would-be blockbuster, and one that is intensely uneven tonally by design. One minute, it’s bombarding you with comic ultraviolence and gore that would not be out of place in The Evil Dead or Cannibal Holocaust, and the next it’s legitimately very funny. That Cannibal Holocaust comparison is no hyperbole, by the way, at least in terms of the disgusting fate that befalls one character.
John Goodman plays Bill Randa, a government official searching for giant monsters with the help of a crew that contains scientists, soldiers, activists and mercenaries. Among them: Tom Hiddleston as the Doc Savage-style white jungle adventurer, Brie Larson as the morally conscientious photojournalist/Kong bait, and Samuel L. Jackson as the army colonel expedition leader who goes full Ahab and becomes obsessed with gaining some form of vengeance on Kong. This is the last we’ll be talking about any of them with the exception of Jackson, given that he’s the only character of any real plot significance, even if he does spend time regurgitating Jurassic Park in-jokes like “Hold on to your butts” and posing in front of Budweiser product placement. The others are more or less underutilized, especially Hiddleston, who just gets lost in the flow. Larson, meanwhile, is less integral than a female lead has ever been in any other King Kong movie.
And that’s where this film differs from previous iterations of the Kong story—it is a pure action movie without any significant attempt at characterization for Kong himself, nor room for subtlety. It’s filled with cliched 1970s period rock music, the kind of feature-length soundtrack that Forrest Gump would have had if he spent the entire film in Vietnam rather than 20 minutes. This is not Peter Jackson’s three-hour epic, which wanted to deliver absolutely everything: Action, drama, suspense, prestige. Larson is never captured by the beast, and she spends almost no time in his presence, and thus doesn’t develop anything like the slow rapport that Naomi Watts’ character has with the ape in Jackson’s film. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why Kong eventually cares about Larson’s character at all, except for the fact that the film casts him as generally benevolent toward humans in general unless provoked. He has none of that spark of intelligence in his face, or the degree of emotionality possessed by Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit. He has not been anthropomorphized, any more than Godzilla was in 2014.
And honestly, that’s fine. This film is about Kong smashing giant lizards, and that’s what he does with reckless abandon. The oddly proportioned “skull crawlers” are serviceably scary antagonists, saddled with a name so stupid that the film goes out of its way to satirize the moniker via its own dialog as means of walking it back. The action sequences are where it shines, whether that’s Sam L.’s band of hopelessly outgunned soldiers fighting against giant spiders and pterodactyls, or Kong ripping giant reptiles limb from limb. The visceral nature of the violence is almost shocking at times, especially because it’s so often balanced by comedy in short order. The gore is definitely there, but one can at least say that no scene is half as harrowingly serious as the bit in Peter Jackson’s King Kong when the entire party is being torn apart by giant insects. Skull Island’s violence might better be compared to say, Deadpool—gratuitous, but with a touch of zany. They at least know enough about what they’re doing to be aware that the climax of the final monster fight needs another Mortal Kombat-style fatality, as we got in the climax of Godzilla. This one does not disappoint.
There is one highlight to the human side of the equation, though, in the form of John C. Reilly, who is nothing short of marvelous. He singlehandedly steals the film away from every other non-Kong character, playing an American pilot who was shot down during WWII and has been living among the natives on the island for several decades. He somehow manages to be both the only effectively comedic character and the one source of genuine pathos, all at the same time, but that’s nothing new for the criminally underutilized Reilly. This film is so much more effective for the fact that he’s in it that I would not want to see it without him. Sustained, audience-wide laughter in a press screening is on the rare side, but it happened several times here, entirely thanks to his delivery. John C. Reilly, oddly enough, is what I’ll be most likely to remember about Skull Island in the coming weeks.
Of course, the film’s real purpose is simply to set up the next phase, as is the case in nearly all cinematic universe movies. Kong has a 2020 date with Godzilla, although one wonders how this version of Kong (which is maybe 100 feet tall) would be supposed to tackle Big G, who was officially listed at 355 feet in Gareth Edwards’ film. It feels like Legendary is showing their hand here when Reilly goes out of his way to mention that “Kong is still growing” in Skull Island, leaving room for further expansion. But that’s a whole hell of a lot of expansion. Perhaps I’m asking a little too much from the film—this is, after all, a new cinematic universe with Godzilla monsters who literally fed on radiation for sustenance. They could hit Kong with a Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style growth ray, for all I know.
What I do know, is that your enjoyment of Kong: Skull Island should not be a matter of surprise or chance. Either you want to see a CGI gorilla beat the hell out of skull reptiles, or you don’t. No one is judging you. Consider the John C. Reilly a pleasant bonus.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein
Starring: John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston
Release date: Friday, March 10, 2017