SDG Reviews ‘Kong: Skull Island’

Hollywood’s first classic monster looks better than ever, but pretty much all the characters, even the creatures, are forgettable — with one notable exception.

(photo: Legendary Entertainment)

Welcome to the MonsterVerse.

That seems to be what Legendary Entertainment is calling their new shared universe — which so far features Godzilla and King Kong — although this might cause confusion with another monster-based shared universe, the Universal Monsters series, debuting later this year with The Mummy, to be followed by Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and so forth.

This universe, with Godzilla’s rival Mothra and other Toho Studios monsters waiting in the wings, could almost be called the TohoVerse, except King Kong isn’t a Toho monster. Perhaps we could borrow an in-universe term and call it the MutoVerse, “Muto” being an acronym for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism.”

In Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla a few years ago, “Muto” was used to describe a pair of mega-critters vaguely reminiscent of (but not to be confused with) Mothra. In retrospect, that, too, seems a bit nonspecific, with a creature like Godzilla stomping around. Yes, he’s Godzilla, but does that make him “identified”?

In Kong: Skull Island, it seems “Muto” applies to any massive unidentified terrestrial organism, including Kong, along with a lot of other variously scaled critters skulking about Skull Island. The MutoVerse is ramping up to a Godzilla vs. Kong rematch, and in due course Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah will presumably all take turns fighting one another, culminating in something like the airport set piece in Captain America: Civil War, with everyone against everyone else, only with Mutos instead of superheroes.

That analogy is a bit more apt than it might seem, because the 2014 Godzilla already cast the King of the Monsters as a savior figure defending Los Angeles from the unnamed Mutos — and of course King Kong was sympathetic from the outset and is here likewise cast in a defender role. Mothra, too, has generally been depicted as sympathetic and even heroic, so when these three square off whose side will we be on? It’s kind of like Captain America vs. Iron Man.

Which, I guess, is the idea. Eventually, along with Batman v. Superman and Godzilla vs. Kong, I suppose we’ll get Frankenstein vs. Dracula, and perhaps Transformers vs. G.I. Joe in the HasbroVerse, and Warcraft vs. Angry Birds in the GameVerse — not to be confused with the BoardgameVerse of Battleship vs. Risk and Chutes and Ladders vs. Candy Land.

And eventually all of these shared universes will collide with all of the others, including Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason, in a Brobdingnagian rumble pitting Jedi against Pirates of the Caribbean, Terminators against Borg, and Muppets against Smurfs, world without end. Even if for some inexplicable reason that doesn’t happen, the LegoVerse will make it happen.

That might seem like an overly dystopian outlook, and maybe you just want to enjoy Kong: Skull Island without thinking about where all this is headed.

The good news is that it’s more enjoyable than Godzilla of 2014, although I admit I struggle to recall practically anything about that movie. Godzilla took the old rule of thumb that the monster you don’t see is scarier than the one you do to an almost ascetical extreme, not fully revealing the monster until the movie was practically over. As if to make up for that, Kong: Skull Island reveals Kong pretty early on, although I guess it’s less of a reveal, since Kong’s look is a little more locked down than Godzilla’s.

I am also happy to go to Skull Island rather than spend more time in Los Angeles or some other urban area, which we see enough of in the movies. Not only is it a change of scenery, it allows for a lot more Mutos than one would normally expect to see in L.A. — even in 1973, when the movie is set. (A strong period vibe is another welcome change of scenery. The more you love the 1970s, the more you’ll enjoy this film.) Nearly all the Mutos are wicked deadly, and I guess any of them could be if they stepped on you, but at least one or two don’t seem interested in killing us, which breaks things up a bit.

Kong has a few other assets that set it apart from Godzilla. By far the most important is John C. Reilly, who sideswipes the movie maybe a third of the way in and keeps it off-balance whenever he’s onscreen. Reilly isn’t part of the expedition to Skull Island, but he shows up anyway, thank goodness. I can’t exactly say he steals the movie when it’s so uncontested; he just kind of takes it and runs with it while everyone else is standing around.

The only other presence worth noting is Samuel L. Jackson, the world’s only human who can lock eyes with King Kong and just glare at him while Kong glares back, as if they were ancient nemeses. Robert Downey Jr. wears a formidable suit of armor; Jackson wears an even more formidable aura of pure attitude. It’s practically visible.

Here he plays an Army helicopter squadron leader at the end of the Vietnam War assigned to provide a military escort for the expedition. He’s smarting from the war we lost (though he says we didn’t lose it; we abandoned it), and is looking for a war he can win. But Jackson’s gifts, however effective, are too familiar after umpteen Marvel movies and a bajillion other things to carry Kong.

I don’t mean to slight Tom Hiddleston (honestly, I can’t be bothered with the character names this time around), a British special forces captain hired to guide the expedition, or Brie Larson, an antiwar photojournalist fresh from Vietnam who comes along to document whatever discoveries are made and whatever untoward business the military may be up to.

Hiddleston proves he could be a fine, charismatic leading man in a movie that cared about things like characters. Larson projects competence, intelligence and empathy, although her main function is to look good in a tank top and to be a mediating feminine presence between the men with guns and the angry Kong. I guess there’s meant to be some chemistry between their characters, more by default than anything else.

Even John Goodman isn’t given much to do as a government agent who is the driving force behind the expedition, a man obsessed with proving that monsters walk the earth in a land where, he says, “God didn’t finish creation, a place where myth and science meet.” If only the characters in this movie talked that way more often. 

Also in the non-character department are the indigenous humans of Skull Island, a much nicer bunch of folks than the bloodthirsty savages in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version. They’re impressively designed with meticulous tattoos and scarification, but they don’t talk much, ostensibly a badge of spiritual elevation. “They’re living in the treetops while we’re in the roots,” a character explains. “No crime, no personal property — they’re past all that.” This quaintly unnuanced take on the “Noble Savage” trope isn’t much less demeaning than Jackson’s inscrutably malevolent natives.

That leaves Kong and his fellow Mutos, who are very impressively rendered and engage in epic brawls the likes of which even Jackson could only dream of back in 2005. What Jackson’s madly ambitious, flawed film had that Skull Island hasn’t is a monster with a heart. It’s not entirely unlike The Great Wall: Legendary Entertainment presents boring humans vs. boring monsters. 

I don’t mean that Kong isn’t sympathetic. Anyone who stands between human beings and some of Skull Island’s nastier inhabitants has my full sympathies. It’s entirely understandable that the natives consider Kong their god. It’s just that, well, he isn’t much of a character than they are.

Kong and Larson come to a kind of understanding, but they don’t have what I would call a relationship, like Naomi Watts and Jackson’s Kong. Kong isn’t particularly fascinated by Larson, like the original was by Faye Wray. I’m not saying I need to hear someone say, “It was beauty that killed the beast” at the end — for one thing, of course Kong doesn’t die — but I kind of feel like it should at least be possible to say that line if he did die.

Look, if you want to see King Kong duking it out with creatures that are literally called “Skullcrawlers,” or locked in battle with a giant octopus and the gastronomical aftermath of that particular fray, this film is your huckleberry. The effects are bleeding-edge, and as Hollywood spectacle goes, this is one of the relatively better examples.

I admit I laughed out loud at a crucial moment as Larson comes closer than I would have believed possible to the most sadistic death scene in Jurassic World without actually dying. But one of these days when Indominus Rex takes its first bite of a Fast & Furious muscle car, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Heavy, sometimes gruesome violence and menace; brief profanity, an obscenity, some cursing and crude language; mildly suggestive images. Older teens and up.