The giant monster movie is a tricky dilemma for Hollywood. On the one hand there is a sizeable audience who really want to see large creatures beating the crap out of each other, smack down flying machines like they are flies and swallow humans like tiny, salty snacks. On the other it seems like there is a limit to how many people will turn up for this kind of entertainment. Godzilla, King Kong, Pacific Rim and now Kong: Skull Island all seem to reach around the half a billion dollar mark and then peter out at the box office. Considering how expensive it is to make a movie about a big ape, lizard or robot this is a problem for Hollywood execs. Clearly they want to make these big spectacles (as they have since the original King Kong) but too much money spent will not make a profit for them. These are, after all, just fun b-movies, albeit very expensive ones.
So Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers clearly have a plan in mind with 2014’s Godzilla and now Kong: Skull Island. Its a shared universe plan (obviously in this day and age) and I guess the thinking is if we can make so much money with Godzilla and then so much more with Kong, then put the two together and we’ll have an Avengers-style hit on our hands.
Well that may be. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to capture the public’s imagination the way the Marvel characters have but I am really glad they are trying. Any horror fan worth their salt should ALWAYS welcome the sight of a beast the size of a tower block trying to snap the jaw bone of another monster, and Kong: Skull Island certainly delivers those mega thrills.
It’s not all about the money though. First and foremost a giant monster movie has to engage and entertain us. This can’t be done with the monsters alone. You will always have to have human characters you can relate to. Godzilla tried really, really hard with that and failed, maybe because there was TOO MUCH character work (on some pretty bland characters as well). Kong goes the opposite way – there are loads of really interesting characters who we hardly get to know at all.
Maybe its because the characters are played by such charismatic actors – Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Riley, Tobey Kebbell, John Goodman, John Ortiz… and many more – but despite the fact you really don’t know much more than their jobs (not even that in some cases: I have no idea what Tian Jing was doing there) you are still rooting for them. Personally I would have had less characters with a little bit more time for them to breath and develop, but then, hey, I didn’t make this film. Also things race on at such a cracking pace there is little time for anyone to become anything more than “my dad gave me this lighter before he got killed in World War 2”.
I wonder if Peter Jackson’s King Kong had anything to do with the pacing of Kong: Skull Island. As beautiful and occasionally magical that film was, the one thing everyone will say about it (and I mean EVERYONE, apart from I guess Peter Jackson) is that it is way, way too long. The plot of the original King Kong was told in a solid 100 minutes and that felt about right. The 1976 remake is well over two hours and felt like it was stretching things. Jackson’s 2005 version is over three hours (200 minutes in the Director’s Cut) and there just isn’t enough story to fill it up, so it goes on and on with minor characters getting whole arcs (and aren’t even in the final act of the film) and scenes lasting for what seem like a week. Perhaps Kong: Skull Island listened to the complaints and kept things as brisk as possible, maybe at the expense of the human interest if not at the expense of the action.
Because what action it is. Kong this time round is a big old bruiser of a monkey. He’s rough-haired and scarred, reminding me more of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler than some love sick ape of old. Okay so he has a little bit of a moment with Brie Larson (though it is more mutual admiration than anything cross breedingly weird like other versions) but most of the time he is just being old, and moody, but kind at heart, and really ready for a fight. He doesn’t have any moments of soppiness, just the odd inquisitive look at these puny humans, before getting back the job at hand, which is mostly beating seventeen types of shit out of these really ugly (and well designed) lizards called the skullcrawlers.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of the lovely but how-the-hell-did-he-go-from-that-to-this Kings of Summer, kicks everything up to a mad cacophony of colours and imagery, taking liberally from Apocalypse Now with slow motion shots of helicopters swooping over the jungle and Kong silhouetted against the sinking sun, but also keeping the action clear and understandable (even as the edits fly by).
Really things race by so fast that it shouldn’t really work at all, but Kong is a loveable fella and between him, the great cast and fantastic monster fighting action its hard not to be engaged and swept up with it all. It make monster movie making look easy, even when it clearly isn’t. Its only afterwards that you realise this is all as shallow as biscuits, but what the hell – you’ve had a good time.
So let’s get the monkey and the lizard together as soon as possible please, and quick, before the money men realise what they’re doing.