Thursday, March 16, 2017

Reviewing ‘Kong: Skull Island’ and Looking at Where We Go from Here



By Jerry Chandler

Okay, I’m going to assume that most of you who stick your head in here at Needless Things are the types to have already gone to see Kong: Skull Island already. If you haven’t, go see it this weekend and come back for this afterwards. I’m going to remain as spoiler free as possible in the initial portion of the column, but, and I will warn you when we’re about to get into spoiler territory, there’s no way to not talk spoilers when talking about what the events seen in Kong: Skull Island credits stinger mean or where we could be headed because of that. 


Kong: Skull Island is a nice reintroduction of King Kong into modern pop culture. Rather than try to retell the original story yet again, Kong: Skull Island takes the basics of the original story- an undiscovered until then island is found and people go there to see what they can see on it –and creates an entirely new story with characters that have motivations completely unlike anything seen in the original film or the two remakes.

The character introductions come fast and are done well. You get more than enough information about each character to understand who they are and what drives them without dragging or padding the opening portion of the film with any unnecessary scenes. We’re launched rather quickly into the journey to Skull Island, learning the basics of the island, and seeing the island itself. We also waste absolutely no time whatsoever being introduced to Kong.

Kong: Skull Island comes from some of the same people and the same studio that brought us 2014’s Godzilla, and they apparently took one of the main criticisms of 2014’s Godzilla to heart and saw it as something they needed to fix in future films. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t play it anywhere near as coy as Godzilla did when it comes to showing us our film’s title monster. The team of explorers, scientists, and soldiers meets Kong in very short order, and he’s not shown to us in only bits and pieces before cutting away to another scene.

This meeting results in the only three major issues I had with the film.

1) Sam Jackson’s Preston Packard’s first response to seeing Kong was to order the choppers to take him on and kill him. Now, I know that they wanted to establish the idea of the mad military commander early, but the fact is that he was in fact a military commander. He was a tactician. If you’re not packing loads of missiles to back up the guns on your choppers, I don’t think the first reaction most people are going to have when seeing an over 100 foot tall ape is to order an immediate attack when there are other option that would let you reevaluate your situation.

2) One thing I liked about the idea of Kong not being brought to America in this story was the being able to skip the inevitable scene where modern man fights Kong in the big city with aircraft that should be able to easily take shots at Kong from a distance but still fly right into his arm’s length to be grabbed and swatted down. There was no way anyone who saw the trailers could be unaware that Kong catches the island explorers in their helicopters unaware and takes a few of them out. I expected that. Where the writing failed a bit in the early going was seemingly taking a lazy way out to get where it needed to be. To strand everyone on the island, the choppers have to be destroyed. You could easily come up with twenty ways to do this that make sense and would have worked in the film. They chose to do it by basically having the choppers fly straight at Kong. So the one hoary old cliché seen at the end of so many giant ape films that I thought would be avoided here was in fact delivered fairly early on. This gave me problem #3.

3) I really could have done without Sam Jackson’s Preston Packard as written for this film. His character’s entire reason for being there, and, as with the chopper ambush, this is not much of a spoiler here if you’ve seen the trailers, is to be the bad guy who wants to take down Kong. The film really tries to push the idea that the two are the main opponents for each other early on and with various visuals. We see visually similar shots of Kong from Packard’s POV and Packard from Kong’s POV as things are exploding and sending fire up around them. We get the close shots of Kong’s angry eyes and we get the identical close shots of Packard’s angry eyes. We get almost identical shots at two points of the film of Kong low from behind and Packard low from behind as they clench their fists in anger.

Sam Jackson’s Preston Packard is there for one reason and one reason only- he’s there to give us the hoary old cliché of the human who wants to kill the monster at all costs and to set up the big explosion scenes. He’s there to be the drama element that creates conflict in the group and on the island. He’s there so that the entire group can be pushed into making stupid choices designed to set up action scenes that could just have easily been set up without a character there to make everyone go along with his stupid decisions. He’s there so we can realize that, oh, it is in fact man that’s the monster of the film. Frankly, that kind of character actually detracts from the film.

The basic plot elements of the film provide enough drama as it is. You have a team of explorers stranded on a strange island filled with creatures unlike anything they’ve ever seen or thought might still exist, they have three days to make it from one side of the island to the other in order to meet another team and not be stranded there forever, and in order to do this they must travel over waters and through jungles filled with things they couldn’t have dreamed up in their worst nightmares. You already have a scenario providing more than ample opportunity for drama and action. You also have the ability to have the humans use military grade weaponry to have a big battle with a monster other than Kong and thus not to a degree devalue him with regards to their announced future plans for the big ape and Godzilla.

A part of the push in the ad campaign and a big part of John Goodman’s Bill Randa’s motivation for fighting to get the expedition to Skull Island going was to prove that monsters exist. Without some of the mad military man plotline, we might have gotten a little better idea of what that means. If Kong: Skull Island is the first real step in moving us towards a shared universe for Legendary’s giant monster properties, It might have been better to give us more or better looks at the dangers of that world. They couldn’t show us various licensed properties or classic kaiju for legal reasons, but they could have given us a little better taste of the monsters and dangers that exist in this world.

They also might have been able to give us a little more or better information about their variation of the Hollow Earth theory. This is apparently going to be a key component of upcoming monster films from Legendary, and it might have been nice to get more than a few lines here and there about it or about how Skull Island is tied into this.

Kong: Skull Island had the potential to be an action/adventure film that really opened up that world. It did deliver in that to a degree, but it could have done a better job of it without losing any of its action or drama if the writing didn’t spend time going down the all too well-worn path of having a mentally unstable military man or similar character decide to get his mad on for the “monster” (while in fact becoming the film’s real monster) and deciding he has to kill the creature at all costs. They essentially sacrificed creating a much needed sense of awe, wonder, and fear for this world of monsters to make an action film.

Having gotten the bad out of the way…

Kong: Skull Island is otherwise a fairly solid entry into Legendary’s monster universe. The characters (other than Sam Jackson’s) are likeable enough and some are fun. The creatures we do see (or just hear) are largely well realized and impressive. The lake kraken wasn’t quite as well digitally realized as it could have been, but I think that was there more as an inside joke/wink and nod to fans going back to Kong fighting the octopus in King Kong vs Godzilla.

Kong is a fairly impressive creation on film. They eschewed the overgrown silverback model of Peter Jackson’s King Kong and went back to something closer in look and style to the original Kong and the 1976 Kong. Kong comes across less as just a giant ape and more like a unique species lost to the world over the passage of time. The Skull Crawlers were less well thought out, but looked good on film.

What we do see of Kong’s world and the people and creatures that inhabit it has its moments of inspiring awe and fear, but it also feels like some of that was sacrificed in the final story. If it’s a world that will be explored in more detail in later films, then it’s a smart move to leave the world less fleshed out and the viewer wanting more. If it’s a missed opportunity, it’s a shame.

I don’t do 3D films, but I’ve been told by several friends that the 3D treatment of the film was absolutely amazing and, in their estimation, more than worth the extra price.

For me, the missed opportunities to flesh out the world Kong lives in as well as the story arc for Sam Jackson’s Preston Packard character took something away from a film that was supposed to be the launching pad film for this shared universe monster project. I enjoyed it, but not as much as many others seem to have enjoyed it. At best I give it 6 stars out of a possible 10. It’s worth it to see on the big screen if you want to see it. It’s a fun popcorn munching time in the theater, but missing something in the actual film’s story.

Stay until after the credits. There’s a nice bonus at the very end of the credits (discussed below) that hints at the huge things to come.


If you saw 2014’s Godzilla. You recognized the name of the secret government agency John Goodman’s Bill Randa has founded. Monarch was in that film the agency tasked with watching out for the intrusion into our world of the giant monsters Randa believes exists. Indeed, they were the ones that covered up the real story of what happened to the nuclear facility that Bryan Cranston's character worked at and contained and watched the creatures responsible for the destruction. You would have also caught the term “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” thrown around a couple of times when big beasts are being referenced in Kong: Skull Island. That was the name shortened into the acronym M.U.T.O., the name given to the creatures that fought Godzilla in the 2014 film. So, even if you had avoided spoilers and talk that would have revealed the connection between the two films, anyone who has seen Godzilla and saw Kong: Skull Island this last weekend would be easily clued in on the fact that this film’s story, while predating the story in Godzilla by some 40+ years, is absolutely connected to that film.               

If you stayed until the end of the credits, you also learned that monsters are not only real, but they’re not all on Skull Island.  In the after credit scene we see Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson’s characters in a small room looking into a two-way mirror and talking to the unseen people who have placed them there. Hiddleston’s character is bargaining for release by saying that they won’t tell the Russians about Skull Island when Corey Hawkins and Tian Jing’s characters enter the room and tell them they’re in Monarch. They then make a reference to older events also referenced in 2014’s Godzilla and show them a folder full of information on monsters and a film of a group of men discovering a cave or cavern filled with ancient cave drawings.

The film focuses on the drawings one at a time. If you’re a kaiju fan who has been avoiding spoilers, you probably geeked out six ways from Sunday at this point. One of the drawings is clearly Godzilla. It’s the drawing that one would surmise (storyline-wise) was the drawing that made Monarch interested in the drawings and take them seriously since Godzilla had been seen decades earlier in the Pacific. We then see the other drawings, and they are unmistakable in their design.

A giant moth.

A giant, winged lizard that looks like a mutant pterodactyl.

A giant, winged creature with a body like Godzilla’s, but with no arms and three heads.

Then there was one more drawing that looked somewhat similar to this classic scene.


We also learned that the people who planned the placement of the post credits scene need to be slapped silly. They maybe should have placed the scene in the center of the credits rather than the very end. As I was sitting there waiting for this scene that I’d been told was coming but had not had spoiled for me, I’m watching the screen and see the line scrolling by that proclaimed that Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah were licensed yadda yadda yadda right before the post credit scene and thus killing some of the punch of the scene.

It had actually been announced as far back as late 2015 that Legendary had acquired the rights to use the three classic Godzilla friends/foes, so there was no doubt they’d eventually make an appearance of some kind. But it would have been nice to have not seen their names in the credits right before the only place in the film they could possibly still be shown. Having the hint about their existence dropped in Kong: Skull Island creates the feeling that we’ll be seeing something akin to a modern version of the classic kaiju battle royal, Destroy All Monsters. The only interesting question that now comes up is will Kong and Godzilla face off as the only monsters in their VS film or will we see Kong interacting with the modern updates of the other classic Toho monsters as well?

I would like to know what they’re going to do with the height differences between Kong and Godzilla though. In the original King Kong vs Godzilla, they simply ignored the established height of King Kong from his earlier American film and made him the same height as Godzilla. Here you have a Kong that’s been introduced into the same shared universe as Godzilla, and, while bigger than any American Kong before him, Kong is once again far smaller than Godzilla. It’s said a few times in Kong: Skull Island that Kong is younger and still growing, but when we see the bones of his parents and the humans hiding in their skulls, the it didn’t make the mature members of the species look to be that much larger.

This may not be a great issue though if plans change with the definitive introduction into this shared universe of Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah and the possibility of Kong underperforming. I hate to be that guy as Kong: Skull Island is #1 at the box office, but the fact is that it’s not performing as well as Godzilla did. It’s first weekend take was $32 million less than 2014’s Godzilla, but its budget is $25 million higher. 2014’s Godzilla was a hit, but just barely; and it was the foreign box office that saved it. Unless Kong has some serious legs at the box office, it runs the risk of being a disappointment to the studio. Should that happen, there’s no telling if the studio will stay the course or hotshot their plans and push the monster bash faster and bigger than planned. This would also likely be dependent on what Godzilla 2 does at the box office.

Personally, I’m hoping they skip doing a King Kong vs Godzilla remake entirely. The original was a cheesy good time and involved Toho taking a lot of liberties with Kong’s size and abilities. I don’t see this Kong realistically growing to be Godzilla’s size or suddenly acquiring lightning powered electrical shock hands. We have Godzilla, we have King Kong, and we have original creations like MUTOs and Skull Crawlers, we know that Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are coming, we know that there are other creatures in the mix since we saw signs of them in Skull Island’s ecosystem, and we know that Legendary has free reign to make original creations. I’m all for them just going straight into a modern day Destroy All Monsters film after Godzilla 2. A giant monster brawl with worldwide destruction would likely be a much more fun time at the movies than just seeing King Kong and Godzilla square off against each other. But that could just be me.

 
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

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