In a new Hollywood age of shared universes and feature length cock teases for the next mega movie, every studio is grasping at every property to craft a vast cinematic tapestry of sequels and set ups. WB managed to look to the past to tackle one that was already kinda done for them. All that’s needed is a little elbow grease to build to the mashup. That is the Kaiju universe, big ole monsters smacking the shit out of each other for the sheer delight of all the kids in the world. The first one (retroactively) was 2014’s Godzilla, the masterwork from Gareth Edwards that brought the big ole lizard back to screens. Almost immediately after that we got the announcement of a sequel, pitting Godzilla against some old foes of his. Rhodan, King Ghidora, and Mothra. But we also got the tease of something else. Work was being done to pit Godzilla against King Kong for the first time since 1962, and Kong would get some celluloid action before meeting up with Zilla. And thus we are now in the midst of Kong: Skull Islands release and we have a little more clues about what to expect.

Skull Island is a movie that is desperate for you to remember Vietnam. The visuals are all indebted to the work that Coppola went crazy for on Apocalypse Now in 1978. The movie is even set right at the end of that fateful war, with a vast majority of the characters being comprised of Vietnam vets. And if they couldn’t get even more obnoxious with the Vietnam callbacks, the soundtrack is Zemeckis level obvious and lazy. Creedence Clearwater must be getting bored of their own residuals coming from the same three songs being repeated ad nauseum in 70s set movies.  But the Nam stuff isn’t all window dressing. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is making a point about war and the unnecessary invasion of a strange land. He’s screaming it loud and clear, trying to make the cheap seats see every point he’s making. Subtlety is not in the cards for this movie. Neither is nailing the themes too well, as the movie is too fast paced and uninterested in character to ever have any point land. The closest it comes in the Ahab like quest Sam Jackson goes on to kill Kong. But even then it’s half cooked. Not to mention the tossed off but never fully engaged heart of darkness thing they think they’re doing with Hiddleston, as he plays the most bland hero in a big blockbuster this side of Jai Courtney.

The movie isn’t bad though. Far from it. It’s ambitious, and even if it doesn’t hit those goals it gets points for trying in a landscape where blockbusters can be content with mediocrity. And for being a puzzle piece in WB’s Kaiju universe, it never overplays the set up. No moment where the movie stops in its tracks to wink at the audience that something else is down the pike (excluding the post credits sequence, which is all those sequences are made for). If anything, the little bit’s and pieces in there are well placed and help make the world feel more lived in. John Goodman’s role as a member of Monarch, the monster research group from Godzilla, isn’t exactly a loud calling card. This movie does something I haven’t seen in a Kong movie before, and that’s to really make the animals more sympathetic and the humans much more villainous to be invading this land, killing without care. It makes Kong a much more honorable character and not just some beast trying to fuck a blonde. A touch that is a pretty cool way to set up the antagonistic relationship between the big bastards is that this version of Kong roams Skull Island to fight off predatory lizards. If they use this, then it’s a simple version of Kong going full on Ahab and trying to kill another lizard. Among the other touches that help make the movie work is Larry Fong’s gorgeous cinematography, capturing some truly iconic imagery that stands with the best of Kaiju cinema. Roberts may have fumbled in most regards to the human characters, he struck gold with John C. Reilly’s stranded WW2 pilot. He does right by the King himself, making him come to life as the weary and lonely protector, a bruiser that is only out to protect his land. And the action is out of this world good, big and varied and violent. It’s fun and wild. Not to mention it’s always a good time seeing a big ole ape throw some haymakers at big animals. The movie has it’s flaws, but it’s an otherwise fun time at the movies that fits right in with the other good Kaiju movies. This is what Jurassic World wishes it could be.

But for all the right that Skull Island does, it doesn’t hold a candle to Godzilla. Especially cause Skull Island seems like a reaction to Godzilla and some of the (unwarranted) criticism it got. Skull Island starts and it doesn’t stop, going for non stop thrills. This approach hurts Skull Island in many ways, as it hinders the characters and makes the action less impactful by the end. Still fun, but in no ways as thrilling as the work that Godzilla does. Because the movie isn’t boring, as some of the softer skulled nitwits think. No, it’s a thoughtful and purposeful movie that is tightening the screws to make every moment of monster action more exciting. For every brief glimpse of the titular beast and cocktease of monster fighting, the anticipation grows and grows until the title bout at the end. Not to mention this approach helps sell the scale of the proceedings, truly putting us in the shoes of the humans at the center of this story. Seeing how dwarfed they are as these gods are battling among the skyscrapers is a sight to behold, and one of the crowning achievements of the movie. Never before has a movie really brought to light how massive these things really are in any meaningful way.

Godzilla has one major flaw, and it’s the human characters. But it’s a major step up from Skull Islands approach to humans, which is have actors read the lines and nothing more. Godzilla’s problem is that they just aren’t memorable. They at least feel more real. I could name some traits about Aaron Taylor Johnsons character, whereas I know nothing about Hiddleston. Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t get much to do, but that’s a nature of being a side character. Brie Larson is apparently a major character but she is a non entity. There’s moments where the Vietnam vets are “bonding” and we’re supposed to get the little in jokes, but there’s never any clarity on who these guys are. Shea Whigham gets a send off that pays off an arc we literally never see. It’s just truly bizarre. And if we’re talking about flaws, Skull Islands become even more apparent in how successfully Godzilla nails it’s themes. In bringing the big monster to the modern times, it can’t rely on the original movies themes of nuclear war. The original posited Godzilla as a consequence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the living embodiment of the fallacy of nuclear war. That’s not really an issue these days, as we haven’t used one since the 1940s. But here, Edwards ingeniously doesn’t stray too far as Godzilla is more of a protector of nature. Mother nature personified, protecting the world from the perils of nuclear power. For the monsters in this one feed off of nuclear energy and they will end up destroying the world. So Godzilla has to wake his big ass up and assert his dominance to bring balance back to the world. It’s a deft way to tackle the nuclear issue in a new way while not making Godzilla a bad guy. Even the element of Godzilla’s collateral damage plays into the theme, as mother nature doesn’t care about the few if it means saving the whole. It’s a much smarter movie than it has any right to be.

Maybe the best thing both movies do is bringing the titular characters to life and giving them some personality. Especially since both are portrayed as weary and tired protectors, each getting winded after fights. It gives them some pathos. It’s also really funny, as it’s just a great sight to see Godzilla let out a sigh after impaling a monster on a building. To see Kong sit on the corpse of a squid he just killed and slurp up the calamari like spaghetti. And the endings of the two movies both have great battles. But let’s be real. Godzilla really takes the cake here, building up to the battle much better than Skull Island and just having more interesting action. The moment where blue light lights up the sky and rises up through the dust till we realize it’s Godzillas back lighting up to unleash the atomic breathe is one of the best crowd pleasing blockbuster moments in recent memory. And his dispatching of the final MUTO is fantastic, brutal and hilarious. But it’s all due to the buildup, which Edwards pulls off masterfully. Another shared trait that is done better by Godzilla is also thanks to Edwards, which is the visuals. He’s not aping any other movies here. He’s working like Spielberg by withholding the beast, but he’s never going full Abrams with the Spielberg influence. The HALO jump sequence is just gorgeous stuff, as is some of the awe inspiring shots of Godzilla himself. Roberts tries to match Edwards here, but you can’t come at the king like this. It’s truly next level stuff.

It’s funny to think that we are gonna get a movie with these two big sumbitches fighting it out. Thematically setting Skull Island in the 70s makes sense, but it also gives an excuse for why he isn’t at the right size to fight Godzilla yet. They’re both portrayed as sympathetic protectors, with Kong being given more of an excuse to be a villain. They’ve both been given visual sumptuous reintroductions to the world that kick all sorts off ass that also have more on the mind than simple action (looking at you Pacific Rim). For all the world building, it remains to be seen how these two will collide. But the world has been set up in interesting ways. Hopefully Michael Dougherty can match the work Edwards did in the 2014 entry, and whoever does take on Godzilla vs King Kong has something special to bring to the table to make it all work. But for now, let’s just be glad we’ve got some big monsters back in the world and they aren’t fucking Jurassic Worlds stupid mega dino.

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