I’m not sure why he who must not be confused with Mighty Joe Young needed an update. The visual effects of the new King Kong movie are more spectacular and in-your-face than those of Peter Jackson‘s film, but I suspect you understand why that doesn’t necessarily make them better and I hope it goes without saying that they’re not as mind-boggling as that which Willis O’Brien pulled off in 1933. The only thing they did was make the ape bigger so why did we even need to see this reboot? Simple. Because we need to get the cinematic universe based around the new Godzilla rolling, because lord knows, every fictional character ever invented needs a cinematic universe now. Why even go to the movies if there aren’t 20 other movies that you kinda-sorta-not-really have to see beforehand?
Of course Godzilla has had a multi-picture franchise in the past, including a fight with a resized King Kong, but this was back when people didn’t run a risk of getting tired of the idea. Then again, I’ve watched enough Cinemassacre to get a decent idea of how good the original Toho films were so maybe I’m wrong. And besides, when you’ve got CGI on your side, I hear audiences are not so stubborn these days after all.
Kong: Skull Island takes place in the 1970’s so one might think of it as a quasi-sequel to the original King Kong tale. John Goodman, as government official Bill Randa, assembles a team of scientists, US soldiers, and others to go on an expedition to a hidden island in the South Pacific and discover just why it has kept itself off man kind’s maps. It doesn’t take long before they realize that ancient forces roam there, and that there is very little hope of them leaving the island or avoiding the horrors that threaten them. This includes, I’m sure you’ve figured out, a towering gorilla who needs no introduction.
The team in question contains Tom Hiddleston as a retired SAS Captain and Vietnam veteran, Brie Larson as a photographer whose presence in the first manned mission to an anomalous island surrounded by a perpetual thunderstorm is at best disagreeable, Corey Hawkins as a geologist working under John Goodman and trying to put the moves on a young biologist played by Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell as a US Major who yearns for home, John C. Reilly as a lost World War II pilot who has lived amonst the island natives for quite some time, and several other characters that exist only to be killed off. Terry Notary provides the motion-capture for King Kong (why apes in film can’t ever have the same limitations on their ability to emote as real-life Hominidae know not) but it feels like wasted effort. Usually when he appears in this movie, he doesn’t do anything terribly important and is mostly there to fill a screentime quota so as to keep the “just show the damn monster” crowd happy.
It’s astonishing how little King Kong actually does in this movie, and how you change your mind about wanting to see him do things when it finally happens and promptly goes on for too long. The rest of the film is dedicated to abrupt moments of action that are forgotten about as suddenly as they appear and cut together in such a way that there’s very little time to wrap your head around which characters are in which group and where that group is at the moment. I can’t say we ever get to know any of them especially well either (which would be why Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla was more succesful in its decision to focus on the humans more than the monsters), nor do we get a solid idea of who our main protagonist is. Samuel L. Jackson makes for a walking “stubborn military leader who refuses to listen” cliché so that one’s easier.
Throughout the film, all I could think about were other things that it reminded me of. The first half or so feels so much like a video game it’s fascinating. First we get the obligatory 20 minute cutscene; then the gameplay suddenly starts and prompts you to use the WASD keys to dodge lightning strikes and later Kong himself; then we get another cutscene; then we get a random boss fight against a titanic spider where you need to hit its weak spots to kill it.
Other than that, Kong gets most of its ideas from other films. The subterrenean lizards that Kong fights look like the Cloverfield monster with fewer appendages, the forced banter between the army guys feels like something out of a less genuine Black Hawk Down, and there are several homages to Jurassic Park which, distracting as they may be, are admittedly a bit more intentional. It also brought to mind Aliens, Apocalypse Now, and the works of Michael Bay in general – with its CG fireballs, overused slow-motion, shots of helicopters against sunset backgrounds, and awkwardly inserted comedy. The characters aren’t much smarter than your standard Michael Bay inventions either.
Kong isn’t entirely worthless. The visual effects team, the camera people and the sound designers have done a great job giving King Kong an awesome presence, and some of the references to old Toho kaiju have a charm to them. These aren’t spoilers, by the way. Nothing is a spoiler anymore. The cliffhanger at the end of this film’s credit will not shock you if you have open eyes and ears and know that Legendary Entertainment have already announced Godzilla vs. Kong. Here’s hoping the next Pacific Rim plays into it somehow.