Kong: Skull Island - In Defense of Giant Monkey Movies

This is what Bill Paxton would have wanted.

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring: Jing Tian, Tom Hiddleston, Jing Tian, Samuel L. Jackson, Jing Tian, John Goodman, Jing Tian, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, oh, and did I mention John C. Reilly? Also a small appearance from Jing Tian
Release Date: March 10, 2017
Runtime: 118 minutes

Somewhere in one of the five boroughs of New York City is a young, thin man with light skin and a wan face. He’s laboring tirelessly over a screenplay. He wears tight clothes and dark rimmed glasses. He writes what he knows, which is just about the people he’s met and the times he’s had, man. The screenplay is about a set of five different young people living in New York. How young? Oh, just about his age. His apartment is small, but his ideas are big. The five young people, see, they’re real disaffected, but they come together to realize maybe there is some good in the world – or at least in their local hookah bar. He has a wide variety of friends, and a wider variety of serviceable narcotics. His legs are skinnier than his girlfriend’s. He’s a social media manager for a company he doesn’t like, but he’ll be moving on before you know it, just as soon as his ship comes in. His name is Sebastian.
There are (theoretically) dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of men just like Sebastian living in New York City. Each one of them has his own screenplay. Each one of them has his own ideas, his own tastes, his own psychological weaknesses, his own friends, his own perversions, his own graces, his own virtues, and his own creeds. Approximately every week one of them will finish his own screenplay and send it into Hollywood (before showing it to his friends, family, and Instagram followers).
You are never going to read Sebastian’s screenplay. Odds are you’re never going to read any of these unpublished screenplays, nor see them turned into magic on the silver screen. Instead, Hollywood decided to make a movie about a giant monkey destroying helicopters.
And I’m so glad they made that decision.
“It’s a story of a very large gorilla, who lived in the jungle. And he was doing okay until some Americans came by and thought that they would take him home with them. They took him to the United States, and they made some money by using the gorilla. Then they killed him.” – Frank Zappa

Kong: Skull Island is a hard reset of the King Kong franchise. While the original tale was set in the early 1930s and featured a general moral tale of what happens when man meddles with natural elements beyond his control, this iteration is set in the early 1970s and features no real moral lesson (in itself, not necessarily a strike against the movie). The original is a beloved, iconic classic that still holds up today. The remake has Tom Hiddleston using a samurai sword.
John Goodman (completely gypped out of a Best Actor nomination by the academy for his performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane) and Corey Hawkins (a geologist) play two government contractors who assemble a team of a spec ops pro (Tom Hiddleston), a helicopter pilot (Samuel L. Jackson), a photojournalist (Brie Larson), a beautiful perfect porcelain goddess (Jing Tian), and approximately three dozen green army men (everyone else) to go blow shit up on a mysterious island. I wasn’t being facetious about blowing shit up – the whole point of the expedition is detonate a bunch of charges across the land to determine Hawkins’ theory that the earth is actually comma hollow. Weird how all his colleagues think he’s crazy. Apparently Hawkins’ stupid theory works, as the green army men are all happy and giddy about leaving the rain-infested killing fields of Vietnam to go to the deserted island surrounded by nigh-impenetrable stormclouds – just so long as they get to blow shit up. Can’t say that’s an indefensible worldview.
Turns out explosions aren’t necessarily good for the denizens of the environment, however, and they wake up the sleeping giant himself, Kong (he’s never referred to as royalty, so we’ll dispense with titles for the remainder of this review). Kong sets forth to obliterating most of the crew. Upon his departure, the survivors attempt to regroup and leave the island – which, to their dismay, is cohabited by several other species of giant creatures. Along the way they meet up with John C. Reilly, a guy who’s been on the island for decades. They eventually regroup with the displaced military as Jackson starts to seriously reconsider changing his name to Col. Kurtz. Tensions flare and Kong battles a bigass lizard and – shocker – beats the tar out of it. Everyone finally makes it off the island – without Kong, that’s important – and we see Reilly go home to finally meet his family. It’s sweet, but in a kinda weird way, like “yup, that’s what Kong: Skull Island was alllllll about!” Meanwhile enough Dad Rock plays to make you think you’re watching Suicide Squad.

Kong: Skull Island is a remarkably stupid movie. The dialogue is stupid, the setup is stupid, the characters are stupid, the monkey is stupid, and the key attention-grabbing moments are stupid. Remember that insipid moment in Eat, Pray, Love (for all you fellas, try to remember the trailer for Eat, Pray, Love) when Julia Roberts touched the trunk of an elephant and, like, tooootally rediscovered herself, like, spiritually? Yeah, for some reason Brie Larson does that in this movie. It doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t really seem to contribute anything to the plot.
Speaking of Brie Larson, I don’t really know why she’s in the movie. Like yeah, obviously, she’s there to take pictures of the expedition for scientific research, and yeah, obviously, she’s there to take pictures of Kong to bring back to the secret government organization Monarch, and yeah, obviously, you have to cast a pretty white woman in a Hollywood movie (particularly a Kong movie), but why Brie Larson? Does she have mass market appeal? Michael Salfino wrote “a starring role in a popcorn movie on the heels of a passion project [Room] can open up an actor to ridicule.” Can it? I don’t know why she’s in the movie, but I don’t see any reason to ridicule her. It’s not her fault she wants to make money. It’s not her fault the script is a joke.
The true conceit of the film is to build up the supporting characters; obviously the giant ape is the real story here, but the movie tries to make it about the humans. There’s way too much backstory for these characters, particularly Larson’s pacifist photojournalist. I don’t care about Hiddleston’s motivations, I don’t care about Hawkins’ bullshit theory, and I don’t care about Goodman’s thousand-yard stare. (I would care about Jing Tian if she got more than five lines in this movie.) The only thing I care about is that giant monkey.

I have to admit, Kong looks better than ever. He looks frustrated, he looks mad, and he looks ferocious – that’s what I’m all about. We don’t need a sensitive Kong, and we certainly don’t need him lusting after a thin blonde (I’m really happy that doesn’t happen in this movie). By the way, turns out director Vogt-Roberts is a complete nerd, listing Neon Genesis Evangelion, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and – I’m not kidding here – Cubone from Pokemon as his influences for the design of the Skull Crawlers. The visuals on the other creatures are decent enough, but Kong’s the real important one, and he shines when he’s needed. I’m not going to act like the special effects used in both King Kong (1933) and King Kong (2005) weren’t significant technical achievements, but the computer generated imagery in this movie looks about as good as the human mind can imagine. Here’s where it really counts: the scene where Kong murks all of their helicopters is so intense and action packed that it was worth 80% of the ticket price. John C. Reilly holding a samurai sword while hissing “death before dishonor” in Japanese was worth the other 20%.

Ultimately, a film needs to do more than look good if it wants to earn a recommendation from me, and luckily this film somehow overcomes its stupidity (rather than embraces it, like the Evil Dead series). Of course Kong and all those other creatures couldn’t possibly exist due to the ramifications of the square cube law. Of course that ecosystem couldn’t possibly support all of the living organisms on that plane. Of course the earth isn’t hollow. Of course Brie Larson couldn’t fire a flare with perfect aim in the perfect action movie pose. This film is about more than words can convey. This is about an icon.
People know who Superman is because, despite being the most stultifyingly dull comic book superhero ever conceptualized, he’s plastered on television shows, movies, lunch boxes, magazines, trading cards, buses, and gimpsuits all across the world. He’s visible. Same thing with Pikachu, Mickey Mouse, Mario, Batman, Fabio, and, yes, Jesus Christ. These are all characters (and a savior of mankind) who are timeless, and a lot of it comes down to visibility. Even with the remake of King Kong, the giant ape has been out of the public mind for some time. When it was first released in 1933, King Kong was a huge phenomenon. It convinced people of the power of movies in terms of profitability, artistry, and technology. It firmly entrenched Universal as a major film studio. Most importantly, it made people afraid of a giant monkey.
Somewhere along the road, we lost our way.

Denizens of earth, this is what we need right now. We need an icon. We need the kids to know about this. So he doesn’t climb a bigass New York skyscraper, so what? He obliterates some helicopters and throws down a jumping double fisted hammer punch on a giant killer lizard. We need a giant monkey movie now more than ever.
A brief aside: I went and saw this in IMAX 3D because I make terrible decisions on a fairly routine basis. I was incentivized to rush out and brave an icy Rt. 28 when Mr. Pataki calmly informed me that there was a Fleischer cartoon with Superman battling a gorilla. He also got a cup with Kong on it. And he picked up a kaiju magazine. I got none of that. All I got was Mike & Ike. It is so unbelievably unfair and unjust that he gets everything and I get nothing. That’s hot crap, ladies and gentlemen.
This brings me to the difficult section – I hope this isn’t considered a spoiler, but if it is, I’m not particularly concerned. I will say that I think this movie is worth watching, so if you value my opinion (don’t laugh), go out and watch the movie before reading further. Alright, for everyone else, let’s press on:

Kong lives.

This is critical. Kong never comes to New York, he never obsesses over Brie Larson, he never climbs up a Manhattan skyscraper, he never makes those big dumb goofy expressions. The ending shot (well, one of three endings anyway) is just a slowly zooming camera of Kong, still alive, still dominant, and walking on his fucking island. This really is a significant detail, and not just because it’s a departure from the crux of the source material. This paves the way for the real reason anyone should watch this, the real reason this is earning a recommendation rather than an execution, the real reason this was even made in the first place:
There’s a post credits sequence where it’s revealed that not only is Kong alive, but he exists in the same universe as Godzilla. Now this is a juicy beef-and-broccoli-with-a-side-of-fried-rice dinner already; we already got a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie, but that sucked on ice. The fact that that movie is being made is going to be amazing for content; I can’t wait for the podcasts where two dorks take a hardline stance on Godzilla winning because of his laser breath, whereas Kong is favored because of his experience against reptiles. Show me the sabermetrics, my bitch. How could it get any better?
You know damned well what that means. I’m calling my shot right now. Godzilla vs. King Kong is going to end with neither one of them winning. Instead they’re gonna team up to kick the shit out of these lesser monsters – one per movie, I’m thinking Godzilla and King Kong vs. Rodan, Godzilla and King Kong vs. Gamera, etc. – and they’re going to continue this for years, and I will see every single one of these. They’re going to pair up like the Dudley Boyz, and they’re going to win the world tag team championship seven years running. Right at the heat of the battle, as Jet Jaguar lies writhing on the mountain as Godzilla flexes his muscles and struts around, Kong will turn to him with a glint in his eye and a song in his heart, and – just like Caesar spoke the first words of an ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so too will Kong speak forth to the giant lizard himself:


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