For better and for worse, Kong: Skull Island is a kaiju movie

I deserve to be flagellated for doing this, but let me be clear that when I speak about Kong: Skull Island, I speak from the perspective that it’s kind of all supposed to be that way.

Yes, the argument of many the indefensible (from all but an entertainment perspective) cinematic experience, but I swear it applies here. For those of you unfamiliar, Kaiju is the name for the Japanese Giant Monster movie, a genre established by and made famous by and generally held up by Godzilla. These films are generally concerned with character work so far as they can’t afford to make a movie entirely out of monsters. On the whole, they’re goofy and either accidentally or deliberately campy outside of their monster action sequences, when the Kaiju film snaps into focus.

Kaiju filmmaking perhaps requires the most adept of cinematic trickery, attempting to weave together a whole framework and narrative to prop up a few scenes and make you sure as hell that you had a lot of fun. Fun is its primary objective, sparking the imagination that makes every kid smash their dinosaur figures together.

So, yes, Kong: Skull Island is dumb. So was Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and all but three films with the word Gamera in the front. Kong: Skull Island undeniably has its weaknesses through the lens of an American blockbuster (and even its weaknesses through my framework), but I ask that you don’t look at it as something it never was.  Instead, look at Kong: Skull Island through the lens it was designed in. Look at it as a B-movie with a budget, Saturday afternoon fare with some flair. More indebted to Megalon and the Gargantuas than any Jurassic movie.

The plot is simple enough. It’s 1973 and the Vietnam War is coming to an end. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is the head of secret governmental organization MONARCH, an organization dedicated to hunting down (excuse my lack of scientific knowledge) giant monsters. MONARCH is on the verge of getting shut down after a series of failures, so he and compatriot Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) hitch onto a mission to map a recently discovered island in the Pacific Ocean.

To help, they recruit James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), ex-British Special Forces and current “Man Without a Mission” mercenary tracker, to help them navigate the potentially dangerous terrain. They recruit a military escort of various young soldiers about to head home from Vietnam led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who feels lost without a war to fight. They also recruit Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an anti-war photographer there to take pictures for an ill-defined reason. Whatever, it works.

Upon arriving on the island, they start dropping bombs to map the Earth. This pisses off (as it should) the largest resident of the island, one Mr. Kong (Kong). Kong proceeds to beat the ever-loving shit out of their group and spread them across the island. Our intrepid adventures/imperialist dickheads must then (with the help of downed WW2 Pilot Marlowe [John C. Reilly]) get to the preplanned rendezvous point while fending off a whole host of horrifying monsters, environmental dangers,

Right off the bat, it has to be said how impressive this movie’s visual sense is. While it’s an almost entirely different film from 2014’s Godzilla (the film that now kicked off what will apparently be a universe), the two share a sense of scale and a sense of awe. A sense that these monsters are something that dwarfs the world around them, that these are essentially something primal and ancient that have come back.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is clearly having a whole hell of a lot of fun with putting this thing together. His Skull Island is a hazy and beautiful Vietnam nightmare, populated with a host of well-designed and creepy creatures. It’s stylized to all hell, your mileage may vary on how much this thing feels like a series of drawn, almost Synderian, images, but for me it absolutely works. Vogt-Roberts is reveling in his action and reveling in his sights and when he’s playing in that sandbox, like in an incredibly tense late-game scene set in a gas-filled graveyard, he’s absolutely in his element.

That reveling comes at the expense of story. Yes, this is a Kaiju movie, so story is secondary to the spectacle and the visceral sensation. Still, I suppose you have to understand your larger audience, and Skull Island is totally propped up on coincidence and obfuscation in the hope of drawing out what ends up being a fairly thin bit of survival. Movement and pacing is almost dice-rolling, jumping from scene to scene with an almost unnatural

It’s also trying to have some sort of social relevance (again, Godzilla vs. Hedorah), but Vogt-Roberts and the three writers on this film (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly) have gone a little too scattershot, spreading their fire a little more thin than I’d like. The Vietnam allusions seem largely unfocused and more generally for aesthetic than anything substantive, which is a shame because those allusions (particularly through aping Apocalypse Now) are the most overwhelming part of the movie.

However, the film does occasionally tap into something that seems to be the most potent theme for this nascent WB KaijuVerse (as make no mistake, that’s what this is intended to set up [stay for the end credits scene]) and seems to be where the film as a series of ideas snaps into focus. Along with Godzilla, the KaijuVerse seems to be intensely concerned with the environmental idea of human as invader. That humans don’t own this Earth and that nature will ultimately reclaim it. We are shockingly powerless compared to these monsters and to nature itself, and that our destruction of the natural world (those bombs, that napalm, all of that can’t save us) will be an undoing for us.

Had Kong: Skull Island leaned more heavily into that than into its Vietnam allusions and background, then perhaps this film wouldn’t be so easy to call dumb. Its characters won’t help, of course.

Partially due to those themes of human insignificance, partially just because Kaiju movies aren’t about people, its characters are here for the most blunt of reasons, because we aren’t quite ready for a movie that doesn’t have them at all. It’s a charming group of actors all doing their thing (Hiddleston is troubled and British, Reilly is goofy and soulful, Larson is spunky and smart, Goodman is mysterious and boisterous, Jackson is angry and intense). All enjoyable for sure, keeping this thing moving, but they’re keeping the tradition of the people never being more interesting than the monsters.

Look, this is a defense of Kong: Skull Island that functions the same way when you have one group of friends meet some asshole friend from your hometown. You’re defending them because that’s just the way they are, even if you totally get it why everyone else doesn’t like it.

Kong: Skull Island is a big dumb popcorn movie that I earnestly think is only accidentally reaching for anything past it, because they feel like they have to. This is a Kaiju spectacle, a whole ton of visual splendor and big monsters hitting other big monsters, and the story is there because it must be. Is that a defense? Nah, I get it, purpose is not necessarily an excuse for mistakes.

But I think Kong: Skull Island earnestly succeeds on its merits and if Warner Brothers wants us to play in their sandbox of these big-budget old-school B-movies? Then I’m here to play.

Grade: B

 

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