“Let’s face it baby, these days, you gotta have a sequel,” to paraphrase Stu from the 1996 film Scream. If that was remade today, it’d be something like this: “‘cause let’s face it baby, these days you gotta have a shared universe.” Thanks to Marvel’s unprecedented success at juggling many balls in one massive shared cinematic universe, every studio and its dog is trying the same trick.
The latest Ghostbusters was supposed to launch a shared series of films. It failed. Of course, DC is trying the same. It’s struggling. Legendary is trying its hand with a MonsterVerse, which brings us to the relaunch of King Kong. This trip to Skull Island is primarily to familiarise the audience with King Kong in the universe that 2014’s Godzilla took place in.
The opening credits use the same montage technique as the Gareth Edwards monster film but there is no direct connection, Godzilla showed the years 1954, 1999 and 2014. Kong’s tale predominantly takes place in 1973 (after seeing a US pilot and Japanese dogfight counterpart crash land on the island in 1944).
The premise being John Goodman’s Bill Randa wants to travel to an island that defies detection. He’s convinced – because of something he saw as a child – that prehistoric animals exist in the modern day. He thinks Skull Island is a haven for them. Of course, he’s correct, and the island isn’t just home to a massive monkey. There are things that make the dinosaurs look fluffy.
Randa uses the end of the Vietnam war to leverage the powers that be to use the returning military for a little excursion. Enter a team. Shared universes need teams, even if the decades that divide the movies means it’s a onetime shot.
Tom Hiddleston is James Conrad, a former SAS man turned mercenary, reminding us why he can never be James Bond. Brie Larson turns up as photographer Mason Weaver. She is a do-gooder that has been on the cover of Time and is looking for the next big shot, regardless of the danger. And we have Samuel L. Jackson playing Preston Packard, the leader of the squadron assigned to land on the island.
Along for the ride are a few scientists, their biggest contribution is discovering we live in a hollow world. Yep, we can forget science when given massive monkeys with five fingers. Do we need pseudo-science to makes sense of it? Clive Balls does believe the world is flat, so perhaps some people will buy into this. Plus, it could explain the appearance of further beasts in upcoming Godzilla films.
Because the scientists need to probe, they dropped seismic charges to determine the composition of the land mass. Or as they appear to Kong: bombs.
There is no slow build-up and a big reveal to Kong like in all of his previous outings. Here, the King is front and centre from the off. He takes out the incoming helicopter squadron with ease. The moment is perhaps to pay homage to the original battle from 1933 on the Empire State Building. If so, all it does is alert us to the fact there is no tension or investment.
The survivors meet up with that crashed 1944 pilot, he turns out to be Hank Marlow, played by comic actor John C. Reilly. He provides relief in a film that doesn’t really need any. Godzilla (2014) was criticised for being too dark. It literally lacked a colour palette. This movie goes too far in the opposite direction.
The banners on buses and building gave us the hint. Those garish colours fill the big screen. What it loses in mood swings it toward cartoon. In doing so, the characters follow suit. Samuel L. Jackson, as well as reusing his own lines from Jurassic Park, and paraphrasing himself from Pulp Fiction, becomes the single-minded human antagonist.
He’s miffed Kong killed his invading crew. Hank Marlow explains, Kong keeps the dangerous monsters at bay and the island’s indigenous people safe. Jackson doesn’t care. It’s as unrealistic as his pouch – something a soldier returning from years of war in Vietnam just wouldn’t have.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts must have had a checklist of classic Kong shots – like the blonde woman lay in King Kong’s open palm – but he missed the vital element. Kong’s powerful scenes work when you feel for the character. In this outing, we don’t have time to care for the big guy.
And Brie Larson, arguably the most talented actor in the film, can get the damsel in distress and looking up in awe facial shots down to a T all she wants, it means zero if the world she’s working in is soulless.
The action is visually perfect, the actors do their best with a limited script, but it lacks the intelligence Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla strived for in pursuit of a more accessible action flick. I hope to see Kong again, next time I hope he reminds us why we used to care.