Though the giant monster genre may not exactly be a critical darling, there are at least two giant monsters in cinema with legacies so strong that even the more prudish film-lovers show them a degree of respect. One of them is Godzilla, who has seen a recent return to form in both his native Japan with the acclaimed Shin Godzilla, as well as making a splash with western audiences with his 2014 American reboot. The other iconic giant monster is King Kong.
While the original 1933 King Kong may not wow today’s audiences with its special effects, it remains heralded for how much it pushed filmmaking techniques forward, as well as its genuine storytelling prowess. It’s still entertaining, and is held in such high regard that its remakes in the 1970s and 2000s were seen as big deals, with the filmmakers behind those remakes (particularly Peter Jackson and his enjoyable-but-overly-long 2005 film) showing a great deal of respect to the source material.
Now we have another reboot of the King Kong franchise in the form of Kong: Skull Island. Though unlike the previous films, this is not a remake of the 1933 movie. Instead, it’s a reimagining of the Kong mythology that serves as a means to not only reintroduce Kong, but also to combine his world with that of the 2014 Godzilla, to create a shared cinematic universe between the behemoths.
Of course, this isn’t the first time cinema’s two most famous giants coexisted. Toho once made their own King Kong Versus Godzilla in the 1960s, which delighted the Hell out of me when I was very young. Of course, today, King Kong Versus Godzilla can only be enjoyed in an ironic sense, as the film’s special effects were laughably bad even in their day, and it’s not exactly a movie that had a strong narrative to fall back on.
Still, King Kong Versus Godzilla established my love of giant monsters from an early age, and now I’m ecstatic that the two legendary monsters have the chance to have an epic encounter worthy of their names.
The good news is that Kong: Skull Island doesn’t just serve as a means to prep Kong up for his inevitable encounter with Godzilla (though it does that, too), but also makes for a highly entertaining film in its own right.
What struck me as kind of funny is how different the tone is in Skull Island than it was in the 2014 Godzilla film. In the 2014 movie, the film really tried to treat Godzilla with nothing but reverence (sometimes to its detriment, as Godzilla only had a handful of minutes of screen time). It was a serious, dramatic film, and a mostly good one (albeit with some great flaws). But here, Kong is only treated with reverence in select moments. For the most part, Skull Island just wants us to have fun and to show how badass King Kong is. The plot has serious elements, but the tone of the movie is a lot more focused on action, comedy, and fun than Godzilla was.
Personally, I don’t mind that. So many blockbusters these days try to be so dark and edgy, that a genuine good time seems increasingly rare. Though I respect Godzilla’s efforts for trying to present things as serious as possible to respect its titular lizard, Kong: Skull Island serves as a nice counterbalance to it. This is a movie all about having a fun time, and it succeeds.
Kong: Skull Island takes place shortly after the Vietnam War (making it a prequel to Godzilla). Bill Randa (John Goodman) is a leading member of the government organization Monarch, and is leading an exhibition to the mysterious Skull Island, under the pretense of mapping out the island. He recruits a tracker in James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a photographer in Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and Lieutenant Colonal Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) along with his with entire squadron, who are to escort the mission.
Naturally, it’s anything but an easy ride, as Skull Island is surrounded by perpetual storms, and shortly after arriving, many of their helicopters are downed by the giant ape known as Kong. The surviving members of the group (namely the main characters) then meet up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a cooky and eccentric US soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The group then plans a way to escape from the island, all while surviving the many dangers it entails, the most prominent of which being vicious, reptilian monsters dubbed “Skullcrawlers.”
It’s silly and simple, yes. But it’s also a lot of fun. The special effects are great, the action scenes are exciting, and the film is a lot more generous with its giant monster fights than the 2014 Godzilla film. Not to mention John C. Reilly gets some terrific comedic moments and one-liners.
Admittedly, the film has its flaws. Namely, the characters are all pretty stock, and pretty much fit into their generic adventure movie roles. It’s a shame, because the film features some great actors, but they only have so much to work with in regards to their characters. John Goodman especially seems underutilized, much like Bryan Cranston was in Godzilla (though admittedly Goodman has a better showing than that).
It’s as if both the 2014 Godzilla and this film showcase the good and bad of both of their approaches to the material. While Godzilla focused too much of its time on the humans at the expense of the giant monsters we all wanted to see, Kong: Skull Island spends so much time on its action that its characters are never allowed to become anything more than archetypes. Hopefully future films in this crossover franchise will learn to find a good balance between entertainment and depth.
Still, Kong: Skull Island is tremendous fun. It delivers solid blockbuster entertainment, and serves as a fitting introduction for King Kong’s placement in this new shared Monsterverse (King Kong is much larger than he’s ever been, with the film making a point to mention that he’s “still growing,” as to make him a worthy opponent to Godzilla). The wait for future giant monster showdowns is looking promising, and hopefully the inevitable encounter between King Kong and Godzilla will be one for the ages.