It’s probably a good thing that I’m not in charge of which movies get made and which ones don’t. While we would certainly get fewer third-rate horror movies and lazy animated movies (and like three more Crank movies, what happened to that franchise?) there’s just so many movies that must sound terrible at the log line phrase that end up being good movies. For example, if I had been in charge when someone came and said, “Hey, we want to make a new King Kong movie but it’s going to be what if King Kong met Apocalypse Now!” I probably would have passed. But someone at Legendary Pictures said yes, and we got Kong: Skull Island—a delightful, odd, horrific monster movie. It’s a better movie than I expected, a better movie than it probably should be, and a worthy opening salvo in the 2017 action movie wars.
The second act of Kong: Skull Island was the whole movie for me. The first act is an endless parade of set-up that I did not need, made only barely tolerable by the frequent use of John Goodman. I don’t particularly care how or why anyone ends up on Skull Island, just that it happens— and while I appreciate that different sets of characters need to be briefed on the nature and the history of the island, I don’t need to hear everything three times. I just need them to get to the part of the movie where there’s a giant monkey. Similarly, the end doesn’t feel like it’s the end result of the build of the movie, more like the movie needs to wrap up— and so a bigger, badder, version of the kind of fight we’ve already seen is whipped together and done in full view of all the remaining characters. It didn’t work for me. The middle of the movie is where I got my money’s worth. The characters are all split up, and each scene is them uncovering some new horror or another as the color temperature shifts on a dime. It’s stressful, terrifying, and relentless just like Mad Max: Fury Road. It puts you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next giant spider or terrible bird or whatever and Kong himself is a rare, seemingly random, participant in the action. When he appear on screen he’s riveting (he’s King Kong— he’s been doing this since 1933) but he doesn’t drive the action per se. It’s a wonderful segment, some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen in years… they just couldn’t keep it up.
I understand that everything needs to be a franchise these days and that shared universes are the new hotness, but we might be expending too much effort to lead up to a crossover movie with Kong and Godzilla. We don’t need six years and four films to connect the rebooted Godzilla with the rebooted Kong. Either audiences are smart enough to not need their hands held the whole way to get them interested in the monster showdown, or they’re so dumb you risk losing their attention entirely. I refuse to believe that people fall in to the narrow band of needing all this exposition to understand that they what to watch two giant creatures level a city.
You can never quite tell what’s going to work in a movie. The B plot of Kong: Skull Island is essentially Moby Dick retold with Samuel L. Jackson playing Captain Ahab (and with Kong playing the whale, of course) and it’s ludicrous and a bit predictable and it steals shots from a dozen other movies and it’s delightful. One of the reasons the third act didn’t work for me is that this plot has run its course and we’re given a less satisfying antagonist for the finale. I might have just been in an uncommonly good mood, or maybe I was blinded by the spectacle of an IMAX screen but I found all the ridiculousness in Kong totally charming. I also liked the 2005 Kong Kong more than my peer group at the time, so maybe I have a soft spot for giant apes. Kong: Skull Island is, at its best, an oppressive, horrifying film and it’s a triumph.