Epic Movie (Re)Watch #195 - Kong: Skull Island
Have I seen it before: Yes
Did I like it then: Yes.
Do I remember it: Yes.
Did I see it in theaters: Yes.
Was it a movie I saw since August 22nd, 2009: Yes, #478.
1) 1944 prologue.
The prologue with Marlow and Gunpei does well to set up the film’s strong sense of visuals (look at how nice that freaking beach is!) and wastes absolutely no time in introducing us to our giant monster of the film. One of the criticisms of the 2014 Godzilla was its reluctance to show us Godzilla (something I have mixed feelings on) but this film just dives right into it with great effect.
2) I’ve already made on comparison with the 2014 Godzilla and the reason for that is - for those who don’t know - because this film and that film take place in the same continuity. Warner Brothers and Legendary are crafting a Cinematic Universe based on these giant monster properties, so there are some consistencies between both films which I appreciate. One of those consistencies is the opening credits scene over Monarch footage.
3) Oh boy…
Randa [towards the end of the Vietnam War]: “Mark my words: there will never be a more screwed up time in Washington.”
(GIF source unknown [if this is your GIF please let me know].)
4) The intro to John Goodman’s Bill Randa is very good at establishing how dedicated he is to his mission, even if we don’t understand the backstory yet. We know through the writing and Goodman’s performance that Randa is strongly motivated, that his personal stakes are high, and somehow this work for us even before we figure out why.
5) Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Packard.
Similar to Goodman’s Randa, we get a strong sense of the character’s motivations immediately. Packard is a dog of war who NEEDS a fight. It’s what has defined him and he tries to justify it with [and this is not an exact quote], “We fight the fight so our families back home don’t have to!” But really he’s just looking to stay in the environment he knows. War defines him and he goes chasing for a war when there isn’t one. His deprecation into madness feels very similar to Col. Kurtz from Heart of Darkness and I dig that.
6) Tom Hiddleston as Conrad.
Hilddeston’s performance in this film is a nice departure from - say - Loki (not that he’s bad as Loki). The grizzled/jaded rogue can easily be a cliché trope that ends up creating boring characters, but Hiddleston is able to make Conrad unique. He’s not Han Solo, he’s not the same character Tom Cruise seems to want to play in all his films, he’s a little sadder and a little more tragic. Hiddleston plays this well and I think it is one of many things which helps make the film as good as it is.
7) Brie Larson as Weaver.
I love Brie Larson. You could have Brie Larson read the phone book and I’d watch. I first saw her in Hoot when I was 10 and when she won the Oscar I was so freaking happy. She’s good in everything; even if the movie is of lesser quality Brie Larson is likely very good in it. This film is NOT of lesser quality and Brie Larson is still very good in it. Weaver is strong and determined without devolving into an “Action Girl” trope if that makes sense. She’s not strong because she can kickass (her greatest weapon is her camera), she’s strong because she doesn’t waiver and does the right thing even when it’s easy. She stands on her own, with Larson breathing incredible life into the part which helps her stand side by side with a freaking giant gorilla.
8) As you may have noted from the fact that most of my notes so far have been about characters and actors, this film’s strongest asset may well be its and characters. By using strong character actors such as John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, and Marc Evan Jackson (among others) each member of the away team is unique and memorable in their own right. We consistently get small but strong moments which further develop characters like Whigham’s Cole and Kebbell’s Chapman, helping the audience invest in pretty much every single character which results in an emotional response when they die or are put into danger. There is no weak link in this chain, you understand all of them through these small but telling moments/interactions. Somehow the filmmakers are able to take what is often the weakest aspect of a giant monster movie - the human characters - and make it the strongest element in Kong: Skull Island.
9) I particularly resonate with Corey Hawkins as Brooks.
Brooks is sensible, curious, cautious, but never cowardly. He may be reluctant to go into danger but that doesn’t mean he shies away from it, while his relationship with Randa is also fun to watch as it speaks to a strong history between the two. Brooks might be my favorite character in the film. Or second favorite after Marlow, but we’ll get to that later.
10) The scene where all the helicopters fly through the storm is a nice way of dividing the normal world and Skull Island, as when they come through the other side the island already feels like a different world.
11) Skull Island.
Kong’s native land is much more a point of focus in this film than other’s before, warranting an entire subtitle devoted to it. The immediate visual aesthetic upon arriving to Skull Island helps establish the character of this place, which only develops as the film continues. Because that’s what Skull Island is: its a character as important as Kong to this movie. The filmmakers put such care into small moments with the island (the bison, the giant spider encounter, etc.) that it helps to make Skull Island an environment the audience can understand perfectly by the film’s conclusion.
12) First real encounter with Kong. AKA: Kong VS Helicopters.
This scene is absolutely amazing at establishing the incredible scope of our titular monster. We got a sense of his size in the prologue, but now it’s not a sense it’s a definition. This scene establishes Kong. It establishes his size, his strength, his ferocity, all in an incredibly entertaining set piece. Besides the monster, it establishes the sense of action the film will have moving forward and acts as a truly wonderful inciting incident that organically separates the away team. In five minutes, the entire direction of the story has changed and it just feels so organic. Whereas Godzilla took an hour to show its monster, this movie wastes no time in reminding us that Kong is king.
13) This little scene between Packard and Randa about the USS Laughton is an incredibly organic way of tying this movie into the larger Monster-Verse. It is done through the lens of Randa’s backstory and history instead of, “Here’s what the audience needs to know,” much as Bryan Cranston was a device of exposition through tragic obsession in Godzilla. I dig it.
14) I am so so so so SO happy that this film disposes of the “dangerous natives” trope that has plagued pretty much every King Kong movie to come before it. The natives are shown as a culture of people, not vicious animals. They’re not even primitive, necessarily, as Marlow talks about who they’re past certain things our culture has. They’re more simple, peaceful, instead of savage. And they’re not the only non-white representation in the film, there are more non-white people than JUST the natives in this movie and I’m just so over the roof that this film finally did away with that archaic trope.
15) Chapman at the water’s edge is more about developing Kong through an encounter with this giant squid than anything else, letting the audience know that he’s more than just some dumb dangerous beast. Chapman is jus who we see this through.
16) Marlow has so many great moments in this film. I’ll talk more about him and John C. Reilly in a sec, but come on!
Marlow [about WW2]: “What happened with the war? Did we win?”
Slivko: “Which one?”
Marlow: “Eh, that makes sense.”
Marlow [about the “devils” of the island]: “I call them Skullcrawlers.”
Marlow: “Because it sounds neat.”
17) John C. Reilly as Marlow.
Marlow is honestly the beating heart of this entire freaking movie. Reilly is able to bring such warmth to the character who is already pretty damn strong in the writing. He shows a respect to nature and the island, he is incredibly kind despite his situation, but that doesn’t mean he’s a pushover. The way he speaks of his lost friend - a former enemy to boot - and the family he misses just wrenches at your heart strings. It is Marlow which propels this film past an empty monster movie to make it an emotional and human adventure where you are rooting for the main characters. I just…I really freaking like Marlow.
18) The film cutting between the three separated parties (Conrad’s party, Packard’s party, and Chapman on his own) could easily have fucked up pacing but the filmmakers are able to do it well enough that it doesn’t mess with the flow of the story. Pacing is never lost.
19) I love the scene where Marlow is caught up on history, like putting a man on the moon and the Cold War. Also I saw this in Chicago like four to five months after the Cubs won so his line about, “Did the Cubs win the world series?” got a good reaction.
20) If you ever want to know how to develop your characters simply, I recommend that you look at the scene where Conrad talks about his late father. Because that’s really what character development is. Small moments where we are made to understand the characters better.
21) I haven’t really talked about Terry Notary or Toby Kebbell’s motion capture work as the titular monster and I really should. It’s easy to forget that there’s an actor behind a character like Kong who just seems so naturally otherworldly, which I think just speaks to how well the performers and motion capture artists do their job. You’re not thinking about the actor behind the part or even if there is an actor there. They embrace the role of Kong so completely that you don’t question you’re just watching Kong on screen.
22) So there’s a moment in the middle of the film when you sort of forget how dangerous Skull Island is, but the movie does a good job of reminding you of the danger by abruptly and shockingly killing of John Ortiz’s character. There was this woman in the theater who jumped so hard when he got swept up by those pterodactyls it made the whole movie better.
23) The mass grave skirmish.
I mentioned this a lot when I was posting about Hitchcock movies last year, but tension does not come from speeding the story up but by slowing it down. That is especially true in this scene, as (in a very Jaws like way) we don’t see the Skullcrawlers for a lot of it but we know they’re there. Meanwhile I absolutely love the way one of them swallowed a camera with a broken flash so that sound and flash of light is what tells you they’re near. Also this is a fucking badass image:
24) Just a quick little thing: I love that this movie doesn’t have a romantic subplot. At all. You can easily ship characters (Brooks and San are two characters I ship), but the film doesn’t take the time to develop any romances which makes sense because THEY’RE ON A FREAKING MONSTER ISLAND TRYING TO GET OF! So yeah, I like that there’s no romance in this movie.
25) The scene where Packard is trying to kill Kong has a number of nice visual parallels with when Kong beat on the helicopters, mainly when Packard clenches his fists.
26) Cole’s death is incredibly heartbreaking because he’s hoping the Skullcrawler will swallow him with two grenades in his hand, but it just whips him against a mountain where his death didn’t even accomplish what he hoped it would. This is why the film takes so much time to develop these characters: so they’re deaths hit harder.
27) Kong VS Skullcrawler
Okay, this is freaking awesome. In the same scene Kong uses a tree as a spear/bat thing to beat on the Skullcrawler BEFORE HE USES A BOAT PROPELLER AS A WEAPON TO WAIL ON THE THING! Also Weaver gets to shoot a flare at the Skullcrawler like a total badass. Honestly this scene is just filled with so many incredible visuals and a wonderful sense of fun from beginning to end. It’s just a really freaking good climax.
28) I’m so happy Marlow survived, that we get to see him return home to his wife and son. I get a little teary every time I see that.
29) Okay, let me tell you something about this post credits scene.
First of all, this is awesome. But I mentioned before that I saw this in the theater. Well when they’re showing all the monsters I hear this guy behind me eagerly say each of their names. “Mothra! Rodan! King Ghidorah!” The movie ends, I turn around to this guy and say, “I don’t know who you are but I feel like I should give you bumps.” This unfortunately speaks to my own biases about what I expected someone who geeks out about Japanese movie monsters to look like, but I was not expecting an African American man in his 60s with the biggest smile on his face ever. AND HE GAVE ME A FIST BUMP! I’ve seen 507 movies in theaters over the course of 8 years and that is one of my favorite stories ever.
Kong: Skull Island is crazy fun and much better than you might expect it to be. The human characters are surprisingly well developed and acted very well, while the film does not skimp on the giant monster action that helps give the movie its entertainment value. John C. Reilly is a particular standout among the cast, but literally I cannot think of a poor performance in this entire film. The visuals are strong, it is paced excellently, and all in all it’s just a very good film I think you should see.