It’s really hard to make a good King Kong or Godzilla movie. All you have to do is watch one. Then think about it. Then say “well that was a bit shit”.
I should probably adjust that to say, “English language movie”. I’ve only seen two Japanese Godzilla’s, and while they were fine, I think I lacked the cultural awareness to appreciate the reverence the Japanese have for their mythical hero. Mostly, I really liked saying “Gojira” out loud because it feels racist, but is akin to being a baby laughing after learning a new word it enjoys.
Typically Godzilla is a good guy, who comes to save Japan from other monsters, but thanks to the 1977 Raymond Burr version, and the 1998 Matthew Broderick version, we’ve come to know him as the enemy, or at the very best a clumsy nuisance. Which I think is why the 2014 Gareth Edwards vehicle was such a disaster.
The trailers spent a year setting up a story line that was not present in the final film. It pimped out flavour-of-the-moment Bryan Cranston to be a huge part of the story. He was going to be the scientist uncovering the discovery of Godzilla who spends the whole movie yelling at the President “YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME!” and later “I fucking told you so, knob-munch”. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson would be the marine who leads an entire team into attack Godzilla. They all die, but he goes all Jonah and the Whale and then blows it up from the inside. Not the most original story, but with so many decent actors and effects, it would have been pure popcorn-inhaling fun.
Instead we got Cranston dying within 15-minutes just being generally concerned about radiation. Two other monsters, based on old Japanese Godzilla foes “MUTO” are the actual villains of the film, and all they’re really trying to do is meet up and fuck. Godzilla hears them calling out “Hey baby” to each other and, being the prude that he is, decides “Nope, I’m not having any of that. Goddamn kids!” so sets out to stop them copulating. Or at least he will, as soon as he wakes up.
Meanwhile ATJ is called up for action which he’s happy to do, because, and this scene was cut from the film… He’s constantly arguing with his wife, saying “But in Avengers, you’re my sister, so this is really fucking weird that we’ve got a kid together now”.
Godzilla finally rocks up around the half point of the film (just after an hour) and slowly ambles towards the horny elbow creatures, and vomits down their throats.
It’s not terrible. But it’s not great. It’s good that they’ve change Godzilla to be the Hero/Anti-Hero, I just wish they’d set it up like that in the trailers, instead of tricking us. It’s a dick move.
Many people seemed to enjoy the homage to Jaws (1975), by dragging out the introduction to the title character, who then only had about 12-minutes of screen time. But the difference was, Jaws was the bad guy, so keeping him hidden builds suspense. By not introducing the hero it’s hard to give a fuck if he wins or not. Personally it felt more The Mothman Prophecies (2002) where you’re expecting someone in a Mothman suit to be jumping out from behind a door, but it’s all just people talking about whether or not there really is a Mothman. Tedius.
However, they didn’t fuck around like that with Kong: Skull Island. They’re chomping at the bit to get in to some monster fighting. There’s a two-minute cold open and title montage that establishes the lost island, and the timeline for John C Reilly’s character Hank. We’ve got five minutes with Bill Randa (John Goodman) looking for funding, or in reality, just explaining the plot for anyone that didn’t pay attention to the titles. Then we’re quickly introduced to the rest of the cast, giving them a couple of character-defining entry lines.
Captain James Conrad: I guess no man comes home from war, not really.
It’s a medley of short scenes that form a humorous pastiche to adventure films that were made around the time this film is set. My favourite would be the introduction of the cool, cocky, devil-may-care, Indiana Jones-type, adventurer. In years gone by you would see this hero shooting a bullseye from an impossibly long distance, or chopping a log in half with considerable ease. With James Conrad (Tom Hiddlestone) they tread on the familiar trope of the pool player that’s hustling and pots the black with several ricochet’s bouncing around a crowded table. However, just for a laugh they set the black directly in front of the pocket, and the white directly behind the black. It’s the kind of shot that couldn’t be missed even he were using a snake as the cue. It’s in that moment you know they’re going to have some fun with it.
A short time later Victor Nieves (John Ortiz) participates in something I like to call “Beld-ing”. It’s the joke that is so well-worn in movies that it eventually became a staple in episodes of Saved by the Bell (1989-1992) where Mr Belding would say something like “There’s no way I’m putting on that skirt and dancing the hula, even if it would save the islanders land…” Smash-cut to Mr Belding wearing a hula skirt and dancing around a totem pole. And yes, of all the episodes, I went for the TV movie “Hawaiian Style” for a reference.
Ortiz executes the “I’m not getting on that chopper” line in such a way that he might as well have turned to camera and shrugged his shoulders while a mocking trombone played in the background as he’s staring at the empty seat.
It sounds bad, but they know what they’re doing. It’s all very enjoyable.
Being as it’s set in 1973, and has already heavily referenced Apocalypse Now (1979) with its poster, and some big sweeping helicopter shots, it also pulls the soundtrack straight out of every Vietnam film you’ve ever seen.
There’s an episode of the Cracked podcast where they discuss how the most popular songs during the time of the war were not the dark, moody, existential themed rock classics that play over the whirr of helicopter blades, but in actual fact were songs like Sugar Sugar by The Archies. I’ll include a list of the top ten singles on the Billboard chart for 1973 as an example. No Hendrix or Rolling Stones.
But it’s the kind of soundtrack that you need, because you’re accustomed to it for the type of action and explosions you’re about to see. It helps you feel the mindset of these soldiers heading in to a battle they don’t really understand, because you’ve seen it a dozen times before. The indigenous population is about to destroy them because they have no business being there.
By the time they get to the island everyone’s motivations have been established. Packard (Samuel L Jackson) is the war-hungry Colonel, Bill (Goodman) is the scientist who knows more than he’s letting on, Conrad (Hiddlestone) is the jaded mercenary/secret hero, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is the inquisitive reporter, and you’ve got a team of soldiers who will be fodder for if it’s been too long since a main character died, but it can’t be someone with whom you’re too invested.
So, do we need to explore some more story line once they’ve arrived?
Fuck no. BOOM! Palm tree to the face, muthafucka!
The shots from inside the helicopters as they’re being swung around, and fully frame Kong’s face, are awesome. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word. It’s a completely original shot that I can’t recall ever having a need to be seen before, and it inspires actual awe. This leads up to a hazy sunset shot that was used briefly in the trailer of a far off Kong with the choppers heading toward him. It’s epic. Again, in the true sense of the word because it establishes that these soldiers have no chance of defeating this God-like beast.
I don’t want to give too much away, because if you haven’t seen this movie, you absolutely need to see it. But this action scene is fantastic, but probably only the third best. It perfectly deepens some characters’ motivations and will leave you a little conflicted about whose side you’re on.
Mills: We just got taken down by a monkey the size of a building!
Cole: Yeah. That was an unconventional encounter.
It’s a basic plot of man versus nature, and man versus man, and nature versus nature. So every ten minutes or so, you have someone to root for in some kind of conflict. And unlike Godzilla, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Which if you’re not on board with the things I’ve mentioned so far, you will be by the time John C Reilly turns up. Comedy nerds will notice he’s wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Good for your health”, a nod to his Steve Brule character from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007), which is a really nice touch. But more than that, he is the heart of the story, because he’s the only person that didn’t choose to go to the island, and he just wants to get home. He’s who you’ll empathise the most with. He’s got the most experience, but doesn’t get listened to. He’s the everyman. And he crushes his performance, in true Reilly style.
Comedy nerds will also enjoy the performances of Eugene Cordero and the few lines of Mark Evan Jackson. Not because they’re particularly funny in this, but the contradiction between these roles and their numerous appearances on podcasts like “Improv4Humans” and “Spontaneanation” respectively. Jackson also plays Captain Holt’s husband on Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-). It’s a shame they weren’t given more to do here.
Again, I don’t want to give the plot away, because you’re going to enjoy watching it. It goes to a pretty dark place exploring the arrogance of modern man. But all of the conclusions are satisfying and justified.
If you’ve read my previous articles, or the ones I’ll write in the future, you’ll know I have a complex relationship with films that are made for high-art. While I can appreciate long slow dramas, that are well scripted and acted, and resolve a single conflict between a pregnant couple in the 50’s, I don’t love them. For me cinema is about enjoyment on a base level. Something that you can just watch and know it was fun even without thinking. And so far this year, Kong: Skull Island has been my favourite trip to Odeon. I want everyone to see it so they can enjoy it. But I get it’s not for everyone.
Hank Marlow: Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight.
When the full Monster-Verse has been made, I think it will make for the great start to many occasions of doing an all-day movie binge. Much like Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was shit, you won’t mind ploughing through Godzilla (2014) knowing that Kong: Skull Island is coming up, just how Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is worth the wait. And we do have the Marvel Universe (and Netflix) for changing the way we consume movies and TV so that binges have become the norm, which in turn has led to studios making more sets of films like this. DC has struggled to make a decent impression, and The Mummy (2017) was a dodgy first outing for the Dark Universe. But watch Kong, and tell me it doesn’t give you a little bit of hope. If not for mankind, at least for the big companies tasked with entertaining us.
Full disclosure, I haven’t actually seen Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style (1992) since 2009, so I might have made that scene up, but you get the point.