All Hail the King
Sometimes a giant ape is just a giant ape. Sometimes not.
If you’re a filmmaker, the trick to making a memorable creature feature is to make sure your message doesn’t overwhelm your entertainment value. Yes, you can read 1933’s King Kong as a screed about the racist fear of black sexuality. Yes, you can also read 1954’s Godzilla as Japan grappling with their anxiety over nuclear power. But you can also read those two movies as being about:
- A giant gorilla killing people and wrecking stuff.
- An atomic lizard killing people and wrecking stuff.
Hey, if you’re looking to make a point about people or society, that’s great. Film is art, after all. But if you really want it to go down easy for viewers, cloak your message in the guise of entertainment – Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar. It doesn’t have to be subtle. Get Out wears its message on its sleeve. but it’s such a well-made film that it’s now within spitting distance of making $100 million, and deservedly so.
Having said all of that, you can read this weekend’s new release Kong: Skull Island as being a metaphor regarding America’s failure in the Vietnam war, or an entertaining creature feature where a wide variety of people die horribly in a wide variety of ways. Either one works.
It’s 1973, and we’re introduced to crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman). He works for the Monarch Corporation, which you’ll potentially remember from the 2014 Godzilla reboot.* A mysterious island, not at all ominously named Skull Island, has been discovered during a routine satellite pass. Randa has a theory that undiscovered creatures exist, and he convinces the U.S. Government to fund an expedition.** He puts a team together that includes Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an ex-SAS operative and professional tracker, and Weaver (Brie Larson), an antiwar photographer. Their military escort is led by Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is still a little pissed about how things worked out in Vietnam.
So off they go, and just as it should be, they discover that Skull Island is a primordial Land That Time Forgot. Almost immediately upon arrival, they fly their helicopters across the island and proceed to drop a ton of bombs for the purposes of mapping the geology of the island. The locals are not happy about this. One in particular decides to retaliate. Yep, the team is attacked by a skyscraper-sized gorilla, and half of them are quickly wiped out.
Our intrepid heroes are split up. One team, led by Conrad and Weaver, travels across the island to a rally point on the North end. Along the way, they come across the highly entertaining Marlow (John C. Reilly). He’s a fighter pilot who was shot down during World War II and has managed not to become monster chow. He informs his “rescuers” that the giant ape is Kong and that, “He’s a pretty good king” who patrols the island and does battle with other oversized critters like massive pseudo-lizards called Skull Crawlers. They emerge from smoking craters in the ground, and it’s presumably Kong’s job to keep them from overwhelming the island and the world. The other team, led by the increasingly unhinged Packard, is on a mission of revenge for the destruction of his men.
When you break it down, there are two kinds of monster movies. First, you have slow burn movies like Jaws and Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake, where the beast is hidden from the audience for a long period of time to achieve maximum impact. Kong: Skull Island, is the second kind of movie, and we get a fine look at Kong annihilating helicopters not 30 minutes into the film. The big guy looks great, and there are action sequences also involving giant spiders, swarms of pterodactyl-like creatures, and other fiendish thingies.
We’re in similar territory here to Jurassic World. We have a filmmaker primarily known for making small independent movies who’s given a ridiculous budget and tasked to make a blockbuster. But don’t panic! Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World was a dull and stupid movie that felt like it was made purely as a gig, nothing more. This film is different. I have no idea if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a fan of monster movies, but it feels like he is. From the first frame, you can feel the movie straining to get to the island and cut loose. Once the action gets going, there’s a giddy sense of release. I can imagine Vogt-Roberts, along with writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, sitting in a conference room giggling hysterically as they hammer out the story. The film has a tangible sense of fun, and Vogt-Roberts’ action scenes are shot cleanly and with wit.
Sure, there are problems. Since the film is set in the Vietnam era, we’re bombarded by songs we’ve already heard in a thousand other Vietnam movies. If you don’t like Creedence Clearwater Revival, you’re going to despise this movie. In fact, it’s got so many needle drops that it threatens to go into Suicide Squad territory. Once in a while, the film briefly lurches into Obviousland with lines like, “We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it.” Luckily, Vogt-Roberts is able to catch himself and get things back on track.
Do we also need a cast that’s this overqualified? I guess not, but it doesn’t hurt. Let’s be charitable and call the characters “broad.” Samuel L. Jackson is on an Ahab-like quest for vengeance. John Goodman is the crazy scientist nobody listens to until it’s too late. Tom Hiddleston is supremely confident, and Brie Larson wants to take an unforgettable picture. Everybody is fine. Well, everybody except for John C. Reilly, who walks into this murderer’s row of actors and steals the movie from under their noses. As the castaway pilot Marlow, he’s sweet, a little crazy, and really funny. He knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in and offers a broad performance with an undercurrent of humanity.
I’m not used to having a good run of genre films this early in the year. Two weeks ago we had the modern horror classic Get Out. Last week was Logan, a superhero film that rises above the other X-crap into the top tier. This week we’ve got Kong: Skull Island, which delivers solid effects work, zippy action sequences, and an honest love of rampaging beasts.*** It’s refreshing to see a blockbuster obviously made by people who care. More, please.
*I can hear you sighing already due to shared universe fatigue. Cheer up, little buckaroo! I have a feeling this will go to good places, unlike the highly questionable DC Cinematic Universe.
**This isn’t the most foolish thing our government has spent money on, not by a long shot.
***If you share that same love, you’ll want to stick around after the credits.