Note that the title of the film is Kong: Skull Island, not King Kong (2017). This is not another remake of the 1933 motion picture, nor – aside from some third act Easter eggs – does it ever pretend to be. Kong: Skull Island is King Kong as pure battling monsters kaiju eiga (complete with the environmental concerns inherent in that genre) not Merian C. Cooper’s mesmerizing ode to bestiality nor Peter Jackson’s far more effective but overlong love story.
Of course, the giant monster battles are not unprecedented. The first two-thirds of every film titled King Kong are about Skull Island and Kong’s fights with the reptilian predators located there; Kong: Skull Island differs from its predecessors in that it begins and ends on Skull Island and the battle against the reptiles is the film’s central conflict. Kong is the protagonist in a way he’s only been in animated versions of the tale or Toho’s King Kong Escapes” the human secondary protagonists are an entry point into his world, viewpoint characters but not truly the heroes.
This approach echoes and amplifies the approach of the previous Legendary Monsterverse film, Godzilla (2014). Just as Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa is introduced only to be replaced as focal character by Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody only to be replaced by Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Ford Brody only to be a through line to the reveal of the film’s true protagonist, Godzilla, so does Kong: Skull Island introduce us to a succession of presumed human leads who gradually cede narrative focus to the giant ape. Thankfully, as an ape (or possibly, based on his bipedal gait, a hominid) Kong possesses enough expressiveness and intelligence to serve well as the hero, justifying his longer screen time over Godzilla’s sparing use of its lead.
More time spent with the monsters is one way that Kong: Skull Island will better satisfy viewers who felt Godzilla had too little of its titular daikaiju (a complaint this reviewer did not have); the human characters are also wittier and more performative than Taylor-Johnson’s deeply internalized, naturalistic Lt. Brody. Unfortunately, they’re also lifted practically whole-cloth from Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam War movies with broad, winking references to the novel Heart of Darkness. It’s not that Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad isn’t nice to look at, but the obviousness of most of the human roles diminishes their impact. One can practically tally who’s going to live or die as early as the launch of the expedition to Skull Island, with only one impressively cruel ironic twist providing a real surprise.
That said, the human cast is largely entertaining. Brie Larson plays anti-war war photographer Mason Weaver with a deeper internalization than any of her male co-stars. John C. Reilly’s stranded WWII vet steals scenes in a good way, providing much of the story’s heart as well as comic relief. John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson acquit their roles with aplomb. The supporting cast is remarkably good, with surprising effort made toward individualizing the seemingly cannon-fodder soldiers. Corey Hawkins’ MONARCH scientist is notably well-rounded, while Tian Jing’s similar character is not. And, as mentioned above, Tom Hiddleston is really, really nice to watch in an action-oriented role that should really have EON Productions considering him for the next James Bond.
In the end, though, it’s the monsters that carry the film, a varied menagerie composed of equal parts homages to the 1933 original, Jackson’s 2005 version, and Princess Mononoke. They are equal parts strange, expressive, and evocative. As incongruous as the herbivorous Sker Buffalo are in a genre dominated by predatory reptiles, their inclusion allows for pathos and a touch of the sublime. The Leafwings provide the scary/cute frisson of the Dilophosaurus from Jurassic Park (or the Procompsognathus from the book). The Skull Crawlers – with their weird, unnatural limitation to only two limbs and a tail – are wonderfully eldritch, a link to the Lovecraftian horror lurking in the background of the kaiju genre.
Kong himself – practically the only character with an arc of character growth – is by turns vicious, sullen, compassionate, world-weary, and genuinely heroic. The performance capture by Toby Kebbell and Terry Notary is second only to Andy Serkis’ performance in Jackson’s film in terms of the sympathy it evokes, while providing Kong with a fierce intelligence (exemplified by his tool use) and muscularity that makes him an excellent action hero. This Kong may not be the doomed lover of earlier versions, but he’s the first to truly earn the title of king and it’s unfortunate that he won’t have more screen appearances to let him grow more into his role opposite Godzilla in Legendary’s 2020 motion picture.
Speaking of which, it will be interesting to see how Legendary handles the conflict presumed in a title like Godzilla vs. Kong. Both kaiju end their recent films as indisputable heroes (with Godzilla perhaps as a more indestructible, Superman-like defender of the innocent and Kong as a more Batman-like avenger), so it seems likely the film will follow classic superhero team-up structure, with the two leads fighting over a misunderstanding before uniting against a common foe. The end credits teaser scene provides some hints of who that foe might be with a brief sequence setting up things to come in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. While less satisfying than one might have hoped for, the scene provides a welcome crescendo to an entertaining, new take on King Kong.
[As an aside to Savage Worlds fans, the movie also feels – to some degree, at least – like a big-budget Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness and could be easily run using that setting book.]