Kong: Skull Island, 2017

When we talk kaiju — the giant monsters of the big screen — Kong is the first name that comes to mind for me.  Most will say Godzilla.  Whatever.  Kong was first, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s still the best.  Certainly the most interesting.  Why?  Probably because he’s the one with heart.  I grew up with the original 1933 version.  Then again, I grew up with a great many kaiju movies in the weekend monster film rotation, but Kong was always the one that stood out for me.  I didn’t bother with the 2014 Godzilla, opting instead to watch all eight minutes of kaiju footage on YouTube.  Turns out, I still didn’t miss much.  But with Kong: Skull Island… I’ve been chomping at the bit to see this.  Most of that has to do with the great amounts of concept art I’ve been seeing.  Seriously, hit Google and look at some of this!  The artwork for this film is gorgeous!

Obviously, this film has nothing really to do with any of the previous Kong films.  It’s a reintroduction, designed to bring Kong into the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla for purposes of the inevitable showdown.  And when you start talking giant monster fights, the inevitable question becomes: will you care?  This is why I’ve always cheered for Kong.  He’s the one and only kaiju I care about.  Many are cool, but only Kong makes me really give a damn.

The film is set in 1973.  Nixon has just declared he’s pulling the troops out of Vietnam, and Bill Randa (John Goodman) of an organization called Monarch requests an exploration team and military escort to an uncharted island for “scientific research.”  Lt. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is more than delighted to get the call to lead one last mission, while James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired by Randa as an expert tracker and survivalist.  Add in Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) as an anti-war photographer and the rest of Randa’s scientific team.

Arriving on the island, seismic charges are dropped from helicopters under the pretense of seeing through sound what’s under the surface, which is determined to be hollow.  Those charges bring Kong running to face the threat to his home, and the great beast is introduced in a scene that pretty much allows him to take his revenge for those biplanes back in New York.  Conrad’s civilians are separated from Preston’s troops.  Randa reveals to Preston that he had seen Kong before, that he was the last survivor of his team 30 years ago, and he needed proof to bring in the cavalry.  Preston vows to kill Kong for the destruction of his soldiers.  Meanwhile, Conrad’s people find the island natives and meet Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who crashed on the island in World War II and now has the duty of explaining to the audience the ins and outs of how Skull Island works.

The short version is that Kong is the last of his kind, his family having been wiped out by the “skull crawlers” that live beneath the surface.  This renders Kong as the last protection the natives of the island — and the world at large — have against the things that would otherwise potentially dominate the earth.  And so Kong is painted as both savior and threat, both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time.  Well done.  When the two teams reunite, they operate at cross purposes thanks to Preston’s vendetta.  This sets up the showdown between Preston and Kong and between Kong and the big skull crawler.  Giant monster fun ensues.

This movie is very obviously influenced by the look and feel of Apocalypse Now! and other Vietnam era films.  Add in the now-obligatory rock music tracks that define that era and some incredible visuals, and Kong: Skull Island sets the perfect stage for a couple hours of monster fight.  The film plays it straight, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously either.  The exposition is dropped in where needed, but the film’s pace never lags.  There’s an ever-present sense of urgency, and at no time do you ever feel like you’re being cheated from seeing monsters on screen.  It’s epic enough to overwhelm you, and intimate enough to make you feel it.  Godzilla, take note.  This is how you do it.

As a fan of the original and of many of the remakes and sequels over the years, it was a foregone conclusion I’d have fun with this if they even remotely captured any of Kong’s presence and heart.  They did, and I’m one happy fanboy.  I won’t tell you this is a better movie than those, but if you’re looking for a good popcorn movie to kill an afternoon, there are certainly worse ways to go about it.  The human characters get more than enough screen time to establish who they are and why we should care, but Kong is the real star, and the skull crawlers he faces are quickly established as a credible, creepy threat.  They look like something out of Tim Burton’s nightmares, so that just ratchets things up once you see them in action.  Easter eggs galore will play up both fan knowledge and foreshadowing throughout, so the geek in you can have fun connecting the dots, but they all service the plot rather than distract from the action.  Everything about this film works exactly as it should.

In the post credits sequence, it’s revealed that Monarch has been tracking other kaiju, thus connecting this film to Godzilla and to a great many other famous beasties yet to make their rebooted appearance.  With this in mind, I thought it’d be fun to show what Kong’s up against when he faces his Japanese counterpart.

This is how Kong has been scaled over the years:

As you can see, he’s a lot bigger than his original version, but slightly smaller than the first time he faced off against Godzilla, which at the time was a fair fight.

This is how the titans match up for their next meeting:

I still think Kong can take him.  He’s faster, more agile, and more than smart enough to start poking out eyeballs.  He climbs up ‘Zilla’s back where the lizard can’t reach, wreaks some havoc, and it’s all over but the crying.  Go get ’em, Kong.

No matter how it plays out, this is one monster movie that’s a lot more fun than it has any right to be, and it’s considerably smarter than it should be.  As a result, it’s far more competent than what Universal’s pulling right now with their monsters, for all the right reasons.  Kaiju aren’t my favorite monsters out there, but if we can get more of this, I’ll be more than willing to go where the fun is.  This is a solid and nearly obligatory 2-star plot setup that allows you to (dare I say it again) simply have fun.  That really is the name of the game here.  Nothing else matters.  If you want to have fun, this movie’s for you.  Me?  I’m still grinning.

4 stars

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