Review: Kong: Skull Island – Slick and sharp but lacking a larger scale

 

MONSTERS are real CGI.

I don’t really want to talk about Kong: Skull Island. That may lead you to think I didn’t enjoy it or that I think it’s a bad film but neither is true. It’s a gloriously shot, creatively scored and sharply written action piece that might be the best ever King Kong Kash-In in terms of raw production and slick visualisation. It’s loud, it’s fast, it has an amazing cast and it even manages to have less racially-unpleasant depictions of untouched tribal culture than most iterations on King Kong. (It’s still there, but it’s not as bad.)

So why don’t I want to talk about it? Because it makes me want to talk about so many other movies that are not Kong: Skull Island. Because, folks, I love Monster Movies. So that’s what I’m going to talk about. If you wanted a straight review, well I dunno, six out of ten, Hiddleston is bae. The monkey is a ham handed metaphor for America’s failings in the Vietnam War and its military’s place in an increasingly complex geo-political climate at the onset of the Cold War. That good enough for you?

Now, let’s turn to the monsters themselves. First, a preparatory supplement:

 

Check that out! That’s the work of Willis O’Brien, who was a stop motion special effects artist before that was a thing and was the mentor and teacher to the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the genius behind this, this and this. Harryhausen retired in 1981, but he lived until 2013, long enough to see miniature models and stop motion replaced by CGI as the dominant force in cinema special effect. I can’t help but wonder what he would have made of this new Kong.

Make no mistake: the monsters in Kong: Skull Island are amazingly visualised and a fair amount of creativity went into them. I was particularly taken by a giant spider with legs camouflaged to look like bamboo stalks. But even the best and most outrageous moments land flat as a result of all-too-polished CGI effects that neuter proceedings considerably. I’m not usually a CGI Luddite, but in this case there seems to have been a desire to strive for a realistic looking Ape v. Kraken fist fight and it falls very short of the spectacle it should have been, prioritising grim, realistic violence over silly cartoon violence. It’s disappointing, especially when the rest of the film is so gorgeous to look at.

But I digress. The original King Kong was a smash hit, and cemented ‘Giant Ape’ as a staple of cinema canon. And because it was a success in the time it was made, it spawned knock-offs virtually from day one, specifically from Japan. Wasei Kingu Kongu came out the same year as King Kong itself, and more than twenty years before Godzilla established Japan as a force in the monster market and therefore technically the first Kaiju (Giant Monster) movie I could find evidence of.

It’s extremely difficult to find but it’s basically a straight remake of the original film, minus O’Brien’s stunning effects work, still impressive given that it was put together in less than nine months from footage of the original movie.

And in the century between then and now we’ve had more than 15 American or British Kong movies. Here are some gems:

Queen Kong: A British Made gender swap parody with all the Lounge Flute you can eat.

King Kong Lives: Giant Monkey Heart Surgery.

And A*P*E, a Korean take on the character in which King Kong comes to Korea and attacks an American actress filming a movie there. My favourite bit of this trailer is that when Kong wrestles a ‘giant’ shark the voiceover calls it a Jaws Shark, adding another iconic film to the cash-in potential of this movie.

There’s a lengthy gap after King Kong. Kaiju films didn’t really come into their own until the early 1950s, and credit for that goes squarely to the King of Monsters, Godzilla. The original Godzilla remains to this day one of my favourite movies. Sure, it has a giant rubber dinosaur blowing up buildings with laser-breath and chomping on metro trains like links of sausages but, like King Kong, the film comes from a sincerity that you can only get by being the first in your genre. Godzilla isn’t a monster because audiences were asking for monster movies: Godzilla is a monster because Ishirō Honda had seen a very real monster, and created this film to process what he had seen. Godzilla is the Nuclear Holocaust.

This isn’t conjecture. Ishiro Honda said: “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.” and the film’s producer Tomoyuki Tanaka said, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb.”

So, so many monster films have been made over the years, but this is what separates the schlocky ones from the transcendent ones: an understanding that big monsters alone are not enough. They must be connected to genuine fears. And not just phobias or individual fears,  but societal fears that match the size of the creature on the screen. At their best, they challenge us to confront the truly untouchable scope of our world.

With that out of of the way, here are some wonderfully schlocky Japanese Godzilla Ripoffs:

The X from Outer Space: Giant Space Chicken.

Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster.

And, my personal favourite: Mothra. They really turned up the WTF to 11 for this one. It’s a moth. That’s what it is. Best. Movies. Ever.

And this is where we return somewhat hesitantly to Kong: Skull Island, because it’s not just a King Kong movie. Warner Bros are lining up a selection of films to release over the next few years and they all hinge on one simple idea: a Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for Kaiju.

Yeah, you read that right. A network of interconnected movies starring big ol’ beasties, who will no doubt, in classic Toho tradition, fight each other.

And Skull Island does a lot of the groundwork in setting up this franchise. First, by connecting to the 2014 Godzilla remake; second, by establishing an agency of familiar human characters, codenamed Monarch, that is dedicated to tracking and studying the mysteries of giant beasts, and lastly by seeding the idea that the earth is hollow and full of unexplained anoma- wait hold the phone? What? Hollow Earth Theory? That’s what they are going for on this one? I… Okay no judgement…

Here’s where we see Kong and its likely successors start to trip up. High-fidelity film-making demands a suspension of disbelief from an audience that is simultaneously as cynical as it has ever been, and is embroiled in a messy cultural battle for the minds of an inexplicably undecided populace over whether our scientific understanding of the world is solid enough to form a bedrock from which a new moral structure can arise.

And that debate puts ‘Monsters beyond human comprehension’ right on a barely visible front line and muddies the thematic waters of this franchise before the boat launches. For this to work and not be schlocky, they need to latch onto a cultural idea that gives their special effects meaning. Kong: Skull Island succeeds in this to an extent, by setting it against the backdrop of the last days of the Vietnam war, skewering Nixon and the political climate of the time and of the present in the process.

It also narrows the setting of the film to a single uncharted island full of predators, putting the heroes in a position of weakness. It works… just, but at the cost of that crushing sense of scale that Godzilla and King Kong so desperately require. By the end of the film it becomes very easy to view Kong and the other monsters of Skull Island as just very large animals. And remember what Ishiro Honda said about Godzilla? Animals don’t cut it. Kong is great. But he’s not The Bomb.

So what’s to be done? Well, the post-credits stinger for Skull Island teases a whole slew of upcoming monster films, including what seems certain to be remakes of Ghidorah and Mothra, and I’ll be honest, that alone makes me pretty happy. But if this is to work they need to embrace the craziness of the last 80 years of monster movie evolution. If they are remaking Mothra, I don’t just want the Moth. I want the tiny singing Japanese women too. I want a remake of The Deadly Mantis. And I want to be wowed by more than just CGI animals.

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