I’m here to talk to you about the Kaiju Initiative…
My God, does every studio want to make a “cinematic universe” or what? Ever since Disney has been raking in the cash for the past five years off of the Marvel projects and is now replicating that success with Star Wars, every studio and production house is now leveraging their solvency as a business on these big-budget endeavors…to my chagrin when they go horribly wrong. But never let it be said that Warner Brothers is a stubborn old mule as they’re back for another universe, but this time they have no direct creative control over it and are instead just distributing the work of Legendary Entertainment as they begin they’re “MonsterVerse“…yeah it’s a stupid title. But hey, at least now we have a reason to revisit that meh Godzilla remake from three years back as the weird monster-hunting organization from that film, Monarch, returns to send a bunch of Red Shirts to an island that looks distinctly skull-shaped with a very large king…
We start our little adventure with John Goodman as a Monarch agent in 1973 conscripting a military escort lead by Samuel L. Jackson, a mercenary tracker played by Tom Hiddleston, and a war photographer played by Brie Larson; to venture to an island constantly surrounded by storms that was only recently discovered by the government thanks to the satellite imaging. Not knowing what to expect and trying to prove some bullshit theory of large caverns housing creatures beneath the Earth’s surface, the Monarch crew makes it to the island to start dropping bombs that could map the island’s subterranean area…somehow. Yeah the science is all wonky because the film wants a perfectly fine excuse as to why people armed to the teeth are dropping bombs everywhere on the doorstep of everybody’s favorite giant ape, Kong. The big monster tears shit up and leaves the entire expedition in shambles; with Jackson going all Captain Ahab with wanting to kill the beast; meanwhile, Hiddleston and Larson leading a bunch of scientists to bump into a stranded pilot on the island (played by John C. Reily) who dishes on Kong’s purpose. That being to protect the inhabitants from giant, slithery reptiles called “Skullcrawlers” that will threaten the world with their voracious appetite and their incredibly dumb name.
The plot is, as you can tell, a bit paper thin, because that’s not what people are here to see. They want to see King Kong get into a bunch of giant monster fights, that’s it. And to give the movie credit…you get just that. No more, no less. And that implies all the bad, but all the good that comes with it. I’ll dispense with what’s wrong first, but point out it’s not THAT bad. If only because of another film franchise, but one step at a time.
See, the biggest problem with Kaiju Films (giant monster movies if you’re one of the poor souls who have never once seen anything remotely related to Godzilla or even Pacific Rim), is that the human characters almost always feel incidental. It’s hard to get a grasp of them because why the hell should you? There’s a giant monster on screen eating and stomping all over people, why should you care that some random schmuck with little to no personality gets axed in the most gruesome way imaginable? But given the fact that most giant monsters can’t emote (you know, because they are a giant monsters), filmmakers have to give us somebody to follow, if only to remark about all the crazy shit they’re seeing like their wrestling announcers…actually now that I said that, I kind of want characters in kaiju movies to shout every attack they witness like it’s WWE Smackdown.
Getting back on track, Kong: Skull Island opts to give you four primary protagonists but only half of them are in any way interesting. Samuel Jackson is always a pleasure to see, especially as he goes on his Moby Dick-esque quest to down Kong as a way to avenge the soldiers who died under his command and to walk away with a military victory after being forced to withdraw out of Vietnam. Now, this plot point would have been interesting if it was given more time in the film to develop. Hell, it’d be an update to the Herman Melville classic for a younger generation the way Apocalypse Now introduced a generation to Heart of Darkness. But the film doesn’t want to go that dark. This is a popcorn muncher after all, so the Captain Ahab quest turns into a more of a subplot that really doesn’t pan out to much of anything.
Who seems more at home with this material is John C. Reily as an American stranded pilot from World War II. While his character is based on yet another piece of classic literature, it’s how Reily injects as much personality as possible into this persona that he’s immediately recognizable, likable, and someone you want to follow. Hell, he’s even got a few tragic back stories to go around; but rather than mope about it, he tries to push through it with some humor and an awkward laugh. He really does provide surprisingly human moments in the film that come so much more naturally. Shame that he only comes in halfway through the film, but his presence makes the idle chat between characters flow much more strongly.
Sadly, it’s the actors I expected more from that really didn’t have much to do. Hiddleston is on hand to play the chiseled tracker type and Larson is here to play the journalist determined to get to the bottom of a mystery. Except their characters never evolve beyond these archetypes. You get jack personality from them, or even the slightest hint of chemistry despite the film’s attempts to frame several scenes as if they’re going to be smooching by the end (I won’t spoil the “will they-won’t they” question because it’s just too freaking boring). Tobby Kebbell and John Goodman are really not in the film all that much to leave any sort of impact, and Jing Tian is simply here because the filmmakers needed a Chinese actress to facilitate the messy international business tractions I mentioned in critiquing her last work, The Great Wall. Keep in mind, nobody’s bad in this movie, it’s just that you don’t give a shit. Because you all want to know one thing…does Kong unleash carnage?
And I’ll be damned, King Kong is actually made a fully realized action hero for the first time in film history. The other Kong adaptations have their charms, hell there’s a ton to like in the Peter Jackson version from 2005, but this is the first time we get to see a ton of monster versus monster fight sequences that actually look bombastic and thrilling. What’s strange is that you immediately find yourself rooting for Kong in some of these fights considering the fact he opens up the film with taking out a bunch of American soldiers. But this is where the film finally gets what the classic Toho monster mash films did: have the characters pick a “hero” creature to root for because the other creature will wipe out all life as we know it, and the “good” one will just cause billions of dollars in property damage…actually not that different from the current Man of Steel when you really think about it.
My only complaint with this aspect of the film is that the Skullcrawlers are such weak ass villains. Similar to the boring MUTO designs from Godzilla (2014), these just look like screeching reptiles with a flat, uninteresting visual design. I mean monsters like Megalon and Gigan looked silly in rubber suits, but there was artistry and an iconic look about them. Let me put it this way, in even more nerdy terms, several of the Toho monsters had distinct looks to them like Street Fighter characters whereas the Skullycrawlers look like generic henchman that anyone of the fighters would take out in two seconds. And that’s what they were designed to be, cannon fodder for Kong to take out. Even when they reveal the “big one,” he still doesn’t seem all that threatening to Kong. And hell, Kong screws up these creatures royal in this film.
The film is giving me hope that Legendary can pull off their planned King Kong v. Godzilla spectacular in 2020 while also bringing in the other classics like Mothra, Rodan and even King Ghidorah. Even if you’ve never heard the names before, click the links to see these things, they’re pretty recognizable. And it is tantalizing to want to see more, given how well they pulled off this giant monster flick.
Sure the characters weren’t all there, but at least one was remotely fun to watch. Which is more than I can say for the Transformers film series where humans gab on and on, and yet they piss me off so much more. Because they annoy me, they’re detestable caricatures that aren’t fun, are not relevant, and are just plain uninteresting to see next to giant robots. And unlike Kaijus, the Transformers can freaking talk! And all they can speak are either flat dialogue or spout despicable racist garbage. THAT is why I’m giving Kong: Skull Island considerably more credit, because they freaking tried.
And for their effort, they made a fun film you should check out in theaters, but I wouldn’t recommend a FULL PRICE for it. This is a solid…