Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

You’ve got a giant ape movie? I’ll take it. I’m there. The ticket is sold. I don’t even question why. More than anything I’m surprised when people aren’t as quite set to go see it by default. When they ask me why I’m so interested? Interested? How on earth do you not want to just go along and see what they’ve done with Kong this time. It’s not going to be awful. Probably.

Sure, it’s probably going to be cheesy. They’re pop-corn movies! Almost a perfect trope of the cinema going experience. The continual evolution of the story of a giant ape and how he is portrayed and what technical tools, budget and feats are utilised in this portrayal. In the same way that Jaws changed cinema and Jurassic Park after it Kong is a sort of watermark which bobs along in the wake of these films.

The original King Kong is a sort of model T ford of movies. It’s mainstream and it’s problematic but it’s also something that was revolutionary in its way and integral to the course of film history. Peter Jackson’s version may not be nearly as important but it was a well-constructed vehicle for Kong which paid probably too much adulation to its forebear’s story and concentrated too much on added extras and style without examining the essential problems of the Kong story. It was just another Ford. Another family sedan. Far advanced from its model T predecessor but essential the same beast with more power.

In this latest version directed by the relatively unknown Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Universal Studios is attempting to build a monster universe franchise in the same way that Marvel/Disney has done with its properties and DC/Warner Brothers is failing to do with theirs. To be cynical it seems as if they’re doing a relatively poor job at it and following the DC/Warner Brothers model rather than that of Marvel/Disney’s. The 2014 Brian Cranston Godzilla, we’re now told, was supposed to be the start of this epic ‘MonsterVerse’ while the box office flop Dracula Untold, also released in 2014 though no one noticed, was the start of another monster universe (I don’t really know if they’re under the same name of slightly differentiated) which is going to be rebooted with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy this year (2017). This sort of blind floundering and large missteps in a universe doesn’t seem too positive. Then again as much as Marvel may like to make out as if they had all of their moves planned it still seems as if they were lucky with Iron Man (and Robert Downey Jnr) and have continued to play off of that luck and goodwill ever since.

As such this film is designed as an origin story for Kong to bring him into the modern monster universe. Kong is not fully grown though he is massive! In this film, he does not leave Skull Island and he has his own sort of agency and mission. His relationship with the natives of the island makes a little more sense than in other depictions. He is also, even as a teenager, seemingly much bigger than ever before on the big screen.

The film really doesn’t need too much else for me to be happy, which is lucky, as what else is shoehorned into the film is superfluous at best. The film as a period piece faintly plays off of the turmoil in America as the country struggles with withdrawal from the Vietnam war and domestic political upheaval. Yet at the same time the film isn’t interested in exploring any sort of racial tension between the soldiers or scientists and as such most of the characters are pretty two dimensional with very little real chemistry or character development. Brie Larson is fine as the inevitable love interest to Tom Hiddleston who himself manages to pull off (just) being some sort of shadowy military type. His casting also begs the question as to whether Hollywood, in casting Adrian Brody and Tom Hiddleston, look for thin men with angular features in Kong films. Perhaps in some way intending to cast male leads who look as unlike the ape as possible? Two examples aren’t the best sample test but it will be interesting to see what happens in the Kong versus Godzilla movie and who gets the call up. Anyhoo. Meanwhile Samuel L. Jackson chews the hell out of the scenery and makes the best of a character whose sole purpose is irrationally propelling plot. The real highlight of the film, other than Kong, is John C. Reilly, who seems to be the only one on set who understands and enjoys what he is doing with his character and lights up the movie for the time he is in it.

Ultimately, I liked this as a standalone film. Even if it was a little weak on plot and afraid to lean into the true troubles of its period. As an origin film, I think it is moderately successful as it shows why Kong is willing to be humanity’s hero against the other monsters. Sadly, though I’d be very surprised if Universal manages to do much better with their next film. It’ll probably, again, merely be ok. There is foreshadowing in this with Kong’s attraction to Brie Larson that they may once again take Kong to New York by using the bait of a girl and shoe horn that played-out story into the fight against Godzilla or one of the other monsters.

Universal hasn’t reinvented the vehicle. This isn’t a hybrid, electric or flying car version of Kong. It doesn’t portray the ape more effectively or much better. It’s just another Ford with a shiny new paint job and some retro throwback sixties features. The building blocks were there for this to have been something better and for a real sort of drama play out underneath the Kong story. Instead it’s more of the great ape and spectacle while puny humans scurry to and fro beneath him.