Kong: Forget Jurassic Park; Book Your Next Family Vacation to Skull Island!
Okay, I loaded the family up in the van today and we went to see the big ape, the Eighth Wonder of the World tearing it up at the box office.
It delivered pretty much what we all wanted and expected, from the youngest son on up to the oldest boy in the family (that would be me, the boy pushing 45). That is to say, there isn’t going to be any “Oscar buzz” around it (like there is with Logan), but big-budget popcorn B-movies don’t get much better.
A lot of people were excited to see Tom Hiddleston in this movie, and then disappointed to see his performance wasn’t much like Loki: he’s the fairly bland leading man, but he executes the role fine. Likewise for Brie Larson, the anti-war photojournalist who tags along on a hunch that there’s more going on in this expedition to an uncharted island than some mundane mapping (boy is her hunch right!). Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman have more memorable parts, but those, too, are pretty one-dimensional types. The real stand-out, as you’ve probably heard, is John C. Reilly as the WWII fighter pilot who has been stranded on the island for 28 years.
Enough said about the human cast, because, really, they’re all just bit parts to the Main Attraction: Let the Kaiju Main Event begin!
Kong: Skull Island is a lean, mean movie that barely hits the two-hour mark. Can you believe this Kong is more than an hour shorter than Peter Jackson’s outing with the Primary Primate back in 2005? It cuts out what some critics considered a meandering, overlong first act in Jackson’s film, getting straight to the action and then not letting up – right up to the closing shot that zooms in on Kong’s pupil as it reflects the towering rock formation in the center of Skull Island. It also does not grind the action to a halt to capture the big ape and haul him off to New York: this is all Skull Island, baby. The Island “where evolution is not finished,” and its many, many weird denizens.
If you love monsters and bizarre creatures that seem to have walked into the flesh from an anime Miyazaki film, then get on board, man.
“Which was your favorite monster?” is a question I love to be able to ask after a film, and this one had a lot of choices. But I profess a fondness for that gargantuan water-buffalo thing.
Kong himself is pretty excellent. He’s also — without ever uttering a word — one of the more compelling characters (and his character has definitely been altered). No longer the ape to whom the human natives make human sacrifices to placate his ferocious anger, he is now portrayed as their protector against the truly horrifying monstrosities that lurk in the “hollow spaces” beneath. Looking ahead to a proposed future installment in the franchise, this sets him up to be the “baby face” (to use pro-wrestling parlance for the “good guy” in a match) against the much-less anthropomorphized “heel” Godzilla that is a destructive force of nature. Hey, Godzilla’s not going to go out of his way to scoop up a woman who fell in the water during a bout with another monster.
You’ve probably seen the film, or at least read some reviews of it already: So let’s spend the rest of our time here getting into some wonky details, okay? Like, how does this movie fit into the Monsterverse that Warner Brothers/Legendary Entertainment is establishing?
(In case you’re not aware) WB wants a crossover franchise that generates the sort of synergy Disney has so successfully done with the Marvel Movie Universe. Universal is also jumping on the shared-universe bandwagon, resurrecting all their Universal Monster properties from the dead. Of course, Universal can lay claim to having done it first – way back in the 1940s with their crossovers of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy (and Abbott and Costello, but Costello allegedly was only a monster in real life).
Doing this Hollywood-style with a whole pantheon of kaiju (Japanese giant monsters) is a no-brainer, as Toho Studios has already perfected the Godzilla shared universe over the last 60 years, and they have built up a stable of battling behemoths more colorful than the WWE mashed-up with the Power Rangers.
So, 2014 Godzilla was ostensibly the first installment in this newly revamped GMMU, let’s call it (Giant Monster Movie Universe). Or how about Godzillaverse? MUTOverse? Anyway, Godzilla was like Iron Man for the new franchise, kicking it all off, with Kong: Skull Island serving as the first Captain America movie. Now we can start having fun with the crossovers!
Before we get to speculation on that, though, here’s a rundown on the chronology and timeline so far established:
Kong takes place in 1973. Godzilla takes place present day, so around 2014. Presumably there haven’t been any major monsters-trash-city events in the interim, because when it happens in Godzilla the general reaction is “My god no one has ever seen anything like this before!” So we can assume (and the bonus “hidden scene” after the credits in Kong reinforces) that the incident on Skull Island was covered up by the government, and until a MUTO starts trashing Las Vegas and Godzilla comes wading up onto the West Coast most people are oblivious to Monsters of Unusual Size sharing the planet with us.
Both films make reference to a seminal event in the 1950s, when nuclear testing was done on an unnamed atoll in the Pacific. Characters in both films reveal classified intel that the “testing” was a cover-up: they were trying to kill something. That something was Godzilla, presumably making his first appearance in modern times after having been awakened from a peaceful ocean nap by actual nuclear testing.
This led to the birth of Monarch, a top-secret organization dedicated to searching for MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). When Kong begins, right as the Vietnam War is ending and Nixon is being impeached, this scientific organization is close to losing its government funding. John Goodman’s character is apparently a high-ranking official in said organization (I’m not clear after a first viewing if he was the one who founded it, but he was inspired either to start it or be a part of it because he was the only survivor of an attack on a ship back in the 1950s. That attack, we can infer, was made by Godzilla, shortly before the King of Monsters was bombed back into a 6-decade dormancy). The trip to Skull Island is a last-ditch effort to prove that the Monarch scientists are not lunatics wasting taxpayer money.
Obviously the evidence they garnered from Skull Island was enough to ensure a healthy renewal of their funding, because by 2014 and the re-awakening of Godzilla they are a state-of-the-art covert organization that appears to be international in scope, and they already have at least one MUTO in captivity (the one that breaks out and heads off to make MUTO babies with its newly-dug-up mate).
Some big buzz for fans of this stuff has centered around Kong‘s end-credit scene and which iconic Japanese monsters it foretells will be getting the Hollywood revival treatment. It is altogether reminiscent of the similar buzz surrounding the supervillain hints dished out at the end of Marvel flicks (and intentionally so – if it works, steal it).
What we get is a slide show showing cave paintings of various monsters (four to be exact, with a fifth painting of all of them battling) — revealing, at least, that these MUTOs have periodically awakened and trod the Earth to do battle and wreak havoc while humans were on hand to witness it.
There has been much Internet speculation about those four slides that flash by on screen, but I knew which monsters they were right BEFORE the scene began. What?! Oz, we know you’re a helluva guy, but are you saying you’re also psychic?
No, my friends, just observant during the end credits. Tucked away in the copyrights at the end, I saw each of the monsters listed, copyright Toho Studios (when you’re using other people’s properties, you’ve gotta cover that trademark legalese). Spoilers ahead. If you want to keep on having fun guessing, stop reading right now. Otherwise, here they are:
- Godzilla (He’s obvious, of course, even to the uninitiated.)
- Mothra (Not a surprise there either. The Godzilla film even dropped a hint three years ago – an extreme close-up shot of a moth in a terrarium. Mothra is also probably the most recognizable kaiju to American audiences next to Godzilla, and, well, she’s a moth. Not much ambiguity there, even with a primitive cave painting.)
- The third one is really the image that has allowed a little wiggle room (unless, like me, you noticed the copyright list). It looks kinda like a dragon. But also kinda like a pterodactyl, which has led many fans to correctly guess that this is the One. The Only. Rodan! (One of my favorites, so I was giddy. I guess I showed it, because my wife leaned over and whispered, “You’re such a nerd.”) Roooodaaaaan.
- King Ghidorah (Another no-brainer if you know even just the primary foes of Godzilla. He’s got three heads.)
- The fifth slide, showing the Kaiju Knockdown, probably signals “This has happened before. It will happen again. In about two years, right here in this same theater.”
To which I say (to quote the best line in Godzilla), “LET THEM FIGHT!”
While everyone’s been talking about the inevitable Showdown for the crown of “King” between Kong and Godzilla, it’s not very clear to me how this will be pulled off. Since there is at least a modicum of continuity and “reality grounding” to these films (all things being relative – that is to say, “reality grounding” in contrast to the ‘60s and ‘70s Japanese films that featured space aliens who looked just like humans in jumpsuits and weird helmets), one has to wonder how they’ll pull that off in a way that at least makes sense within the ground rules of the franchise.
First off, how does Kong get off the island? Or will Godzilla show up on Skull Island? Then there’s the question of making it a reasonably matched fight. Even amped up to his newly-imagined size of nearly 100 feet tall, Kong would still just come up about to Godzilla’s waist. Like a chimpanzee taking on a rhinoceros, for God’s sake. Also, Godzilla has that radioactive breath, and in this movie Kong shows himself to be much more vulnerable to injury than most kaiju: his arms and hands are all cut up by helicopter rotor blades, and he is taken down (temporarily) by a napalm bomb. A fight between this Kong and the Godzilla featured in the 2014 film wouldn’t last very long. Is Kong going to grow even bigger in the decades that follow Watergate?
Fun to speculate, but at the same time you can’t take it too seriously. I mean, if you wanted serious verisimilitude you’d never invite Kong to the party in the first place. The MUTOs in Godzilla have at least a pseudo-scientific rationale: they are creatures on a very different scale from deep inside the Earth, organisms that are on a completely separate evolutionary path and feed on radiation. But Kong: a skyscraper-sized primate? How’d that evolve? At what point did they stop swinging through the trees and start using them as toothpicks? And how could that skeletal design even hold up against the pull of gravity? No, let’s not go down that path.
I give this monkey business a solid 4 out of 5 stars. For a B-movie delivering kaiju thrills and mindless monster entertainment, this is about as good as it gets. My son’s probably going to watch it a lot when we get it on Blu-ray. And this 45-year-old boy is probably going to get sucked in to watching it a lot with him. No complaints there. I mean, he watches Jackson’s King Kong now, but he always has me jump ahead to about chapter 45 to skip all the “boring stuff.” Get to the island, Daddy! And then when they get back to New York and go ice skating, it kinda drags for him again. No monkeying around here. Skull Island is all island. Gets you in; gets you out; a pretty seamless ride.
Well, they do at one point say that Kong isn’t actually fully grown yet …
And is the “first” movie in the series the original 1954 Godzilla, whose visit to Tokyo was apparently the subject of a massive and surprisingly successful coverup?
That’s right — I caught part of that line, but not the whole gist of it (my son was probably asking for popcorn right at that moment). But it did implant the idea that maybe he just keeps growing.
As far as whether the new franchise treats the original 1954 film as canonical: Many reviewers characterized it that way when the 2014 film came out (implied, for instance, by claiming the new film eschewed all the Godzilla iterations going back to the original). I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t think so.
There are references to the bombing at the atoll, but not (as far as I can recall) any references to Tokyo from the scientists who would be privy to such information. Also, if Tokyo had been trashed by a 200-foot-tall monster in the early ’50s, Monarch wouldn’t be struggling in 1973 to convince the Powers That Be that giant monsters exist.
Well, I’m in favor of any timeline that removes the Devlin/Emmerich film from canonical status.
And here’s hoping we get grim ‘n’ gritty versions of Megalon and Jet Jaguar in future installments.
Jet Jaguar! Jet Jaguar! hell yes 😉
In the early 2000’s run of Toho films, a new Godzilla foe was introduced clearly patterned on the Devlin/Emmerich design. Godzilla beat the living crap out of it.
I’d say 1998 Godzilla shows Hollywood appropriation of a foreign franchise at its very worst, while the 2014 American version demonstrates what Hollywood can do when it does it well.
I went and saw Kong today, and am strangely excited by the prospect of more of these.
Good Lord, a big-budget Hollywood Mothra movie? Yes, that’s what the world needs now! That’s the kind of thing I’d pay to sit in a theater for! All monsters attack! But I’m going to be very, very disappointed there’s no cute singing fairy duo.
Ah yes, the cute singing fairy twins. They’re so tied up with the whole conception of Mothra, they’re part of the package! At the same time, one wonders how the producers could work them in to this new incarnation of the franchise without tossing out any pretense of pseudo-scientific grounding and just declaring “What the hell, it’s Pikachu Land!”
It can be done, though. I had my doubts about how Disney could bring such “comic-booky” characters as Ant Man into the MMU without going off-the-rails silly. But they managed to do it, and handle it well. They brought that mash-up mess of military/scientifically-based heroes (like Steve Rogers) and mythological gods (Thor) straight out of the comics more-or-less faithfully, with due finesse.
Having other, more this-world-grounded characters react with appropriate shock and disbelief goes a long way toward selling the crazy. A few memorable examples of dialogue:
1. From the first Avengers film, Natasha: “I’d sit this one out, Cap! These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods.”
2. Again from Avengers, again Natasha (man she had a lot of good lines): “This is monsters and magic and nothing we were ever trained for.”
3. From Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark (looking flabbergasted after Ant Man has just turned into Giant Man): “Anybody on our side hiding any shocking or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose?”
Well, as to Kong, I have to say that the idea of a mysterious island surrounded by a massive permanent storm system in the middle of the Pacific Ocean somehow still being unexplored in the 1970s kind of jars with the Apocalypse-Now-esque gritty realism of the opening scenes. But if that’s the price of admission to Skull Island, I’m willing to pay it. At any rate, tiny fairies on Infant Island don’t seem too much further a stretch. As you point out, it really all depends on style. If you do it just right, the viewer can swallow pretty much anything. The scientific trappings in the original go pretty far in making it believable, though I’m used to watching Mothra with a six-year-old, which I suspect automatically lowers my personal threshold for suspension of disbelief.
Nice write up. I’m definitely going to have to go see this now. I remember when the zombie apocalypse craze was in full swing, and I was already sick of it. Zombies have always been kind of boring to me. I remember griping that I hoped the next big thing would be a return of giant monster movies. My wish was granted, and I couldn’t be happier. With luck Sword and Sorcery movies will make a comeback next. 😀
Raphael: I know how that is. My son is 6!
CMR: Yes, wish granted on the giant monster craze. I’d love to see some well-done S&S; that’s never been a very well served genre.