I was intrigued, in principal, by this movie. I’ve had an affection for daikaiju for as long as I can remember (the number of stories related to this that actually have some relevance to my life is surprising, to be sure). The idea of a much larger Kong–simultaneously hinting at the already pre-production rumours of Legendary Pictures building up a whole universe alongside the American Godzilla,¹ and explaining how the obvious “King Kong vs. Godzilla” could even occur²–was intriguing. I’m one of what seems to be few (in my circles, at least) who liked the Legendary Godzilla. Goosebumps when I heard the proper roar in a theater. The cast was almost oddball, too–Samuel L. Jackson? John C. Reilly? Tom Hiddleston? John Goodman? Still, I didn’t get around to it. But, like a few other movies I’ve talked about, the free rentals from a local pizza place with orders kind of resolved that tendency to skip some things.
In 1973, looking for the only option left to him, Bill Randa (Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to let them piggyback on a satellite photography mission to the recently discovered “Skull Island”. They enlist a military escort, led by Colonel Packard (Jackson) and composed of a group of soldiers who were set to return home from Vietnam–Mills (Jason Mitchell)³, Cole (Shea Whigham, just seen in Death Note), Chapman (Toby Kebbell, from Jimmy McGovern’s The Street and Black Mirror as far as I’m concerned–his performance in the first was absurdly good), Slivko (Thomas Mann) and a number more. They wisely hire a tracker, Conrad (Hiddleston), in case of any problems they may run across, as they are something like cryptozoologists. Alongside them are a series of civilians–Nieves (John Ortiz) and Steve (Marc Evan Jackson) from Landsat, photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and scientist San (Tian Jing). Upon arriving, they are forced to helicopter through a storm to reach the island and confronted by numerous hideously large native creatures and the surprise of a World War II veteran, Marlow (Reilly).
The scale of Kong is an indication of something: this is not another remake of the 1933 King Kong. It’s not a remake of the 1976 King Kong. It’s not a remake of the 2005 King Kong. This is its own film, and there’s no question about it. The opening is the crash of Marlow and the man who shot him down, Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi)–who continue their fight on the ground after crashing on Skull Island, until Kong appears and interrupts. We move through his eye and into credits that leave us instead moving forward in history to the 1970s and Randa and Brooks. The 1970s–while they actually birthed a Kong film–are not a normal setting. There are nudges and hints of the biggest of Vietnam movies–Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc–up to and including the usage of 1970s pop (Creedence, Bowie, Stooges, and so on) that appear in such a fashion as to avoid feeling inserted to appeal to the audience, and instead establish setting and attitude. Hueys and costuming and language, too, encourage the acceptance of this setting.
While there’s much to be said for establishing this as a period film and choosing an unusual (for films of this type) one, there’s something more to be said for how Skull Island itself is addressed. Peter Jackson’s Skull Island was indeed loaded with creatures, but there was a kind of overarching threat to every single one. The threats here are not minimal or limited, but there are many that never bother (or at least don’t always bother) with killing party members. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the sickening feeling I had watching the “giant arthropods, etc” scene in the 2005 film that seemed designed to exhibit horrific deaths for their own sake, or just to emphasize that everything wanted everyone dead. We have enormous wildebeest or bison-like presumed herbivores here. Insects are, generally, not the size of people or larger–and generally not noticeably larger than they are in the real world. Instead of being malicious and mean-spirited, carnage and action here feel more driven by animal instinct or happenstance. The intruding humans aren’t attacked relentlessly, they’re often even ignored–but sometimes being ignored isn’t any safer, as at least one set-up emphasizes.
While there are hints of the relationship between Fay Wray and Cooper’s Kong between Mason and the modern Kong, there’s no story resembling it. There’s no insistence on a shoe-horned romance, or any shoe-horned subplots. There are numerous moments that are tense, filled with concern for the outcome for the characters that just release their grip and things pass–there’s not a sense that the movie is “out to get” the characters, even as the threats are very real and omnipresent. This was a relief at more moments than just the fauna or the interactions with them. Walking across low water with weapons drawn always looks like yet another threat will be revealed. Actually, this whole sense of “everything is a threat” comes not only from the ’05 Kong, but Dingess and Roberts’s Manifest Destiny comic–there’s not a sense that everything is dangerous so much as nothing isn’t. It’s a pretty thin delineation on some level, I suppose, but it does matter. In Jackson’s Kong or Manifest Destiny, the parties approach anything and you sense that someone is going to horrifically die. And then they do. There are plenty of moments here I felt that dread, but that would pass without casualty–and never in a sense of unsatisfying “teasing”, just a realization that I was prepared for a much nastier film than we got.
All of this comes down to difference–and there’s one core difference I have not yet established: in choosing this particular setting, the door is also opened for correlation with the political state of, at least, the United States in the 1970s. We have an officer in Packard, and we have a self-described anti-war photographer, and a brief clash between them where he insists we “abandoned the war” rather than lost it as Mason suggests. He thanks his superior for this last assignment. There are shots that scream, as many of his men meet their deaths, “AHAB!” (Jackson himself acknowledges this in behind-the-scenes material, making the same connection). There are interesting shots that aren’t distracting, but are noticeably creative: following seismic charges as if the camera is attached to them. Establishing shots from unexpected angles, or by traversing the land. Even a few subtly “fish-eyed” lenses to address the beautiful northern Vietnamese landscapes.
The fascinating thing about all of this is that I realized after a good twenty minutes that this felt something like a modern evolution of the adventurous sci-fi/horror/action movies I grew up with (think Jurassic Park): there’s none of my hated post-modern internal criticism tearing down the film in front of itself to force it to hang lampshades on or willfully deny plot points that seem tired. Instead, it takes the kinds of plots and the kinds of strongly motivated characters of that era and infuses them with a modern eye toward character and film-making. When Conrad (or Weaver, or Cole) does something “badass”–we aren’t uncomfortable with the brazen “cheese” of it (the un-self-aware feeling that the aforementioned self-criticism is responding to), nor are we hoodwinked into thinking everything seems perfectly reasonable and possible. There’s a surprising level of success, essentially, in the craft and design of this movie. It’s not trying to re-create or one-up something–it is, as Vogt-Roberts himself said, trying to carve out its own niche and tell its own story with the core elements of the Kong “mythos” (such as they are). It’s refreshing, honestly, and made for quite an entertaining movie. And, I can’t lie: that post-credits scene surprised the hell out of me. Not for its existence–but for what it hinted at.
¹Let’s be clear. There’s one American Godzilla. That 1998 movie was a travesty and should not be acknowledged.
²If you are lost on why this would be a question, the original scale of Gojira was 50m, while Willis O’Brien’s Kong was around 7m tall. Ergo, the original 1962 match-up, while also “obvious” in a fashion made no sense. Less so as Gojira was “upgraded” over time to twice that size, where he generally rests from Legendary as well. But now so does Kong, so it’s all good.
³Yes. Both Dr. Dre and Eazy-E are in this movie.