Review - 'Kong: Skull Island'
Do you want fun? Excitement? Monster fights? Poorly developed human characters? Total disregard for human life? Well then, have I got the movie for you!
Being a long-time kaiju fan, Kong: Skull Island was immediately on my radar once they announced that it would be part of the new MonsterVerse built upon the foundation of 2014’s Godzilla, which will have the two titans inevitably squaring off in 2020. My initial viewing of Godzilla left me awestruck; the specials effects were top notch and the King of the Monsters felt fully realized for the first time in years. Every moment he was on screen felt powerful and Garreth Edwards’ sense of scale was unmatched. Unfortunately, upon multiple viewings of Godzilla, I forgot how subpar the characters were and following the empty shell of Aaron-Taylor Johnson’s Ford Brody became a chore to sit through, to the point where I now just watch clips of the film instead of watching the film in its entirety. Sadly, this is how I might feel about Kong: Skull Island in the months to come.
Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973 and follows tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photo-journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) being recruited by Monarch’s Bill Randa (John Goodman)-Monarch being the same organization in Godzilla-to survey an uncharted island that goes by the name of Skull Island. Randa, promising adventure and new discoveries, also recruits Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) as a means of military protection. Little do they know that Randa is using this expedition to procure evidence that giant monsters exist but what he doesn’t know is that the island is protected by the legendary Kong, a one hundred foot ape. Kong makes short work of the new visitors to the island, splitting the group up. Conrad and Weaver meet eccentric pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who crashed on Skull Island during World War II and has a plan to escape with their help, while Packard leads his group to vengefully kill Kong for taking the lives of their comrades. On the surface, the teams make their ways to meet at a rendezvous point but below an ancient evil stirs and the teams must unite with Kong to defeat it.
I want to get out of the way first that everyone watching Kong is probably going into it for the King himself and the many other monsters of Skull Island, which I can say are spectacular to look at...if I hadn’t watched any of the trailers first. Don’t get me wrong, the specials effects are breathtaking and Kong and his monstrous brethren look incredible, but most of the best shots of the movie are already in the trailer and that was a little disappointing. The good news though is that the final battle was nowhere in the trailers and watching it play out unspoiled was exhilarating. I loved that many of the monsters in the movie are callbacks to the original ‘33 classic as well as ‘63’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, which I went gaga over, but again, nearly all of the monsters were already in the trailer as well as the action scenes.
The human characters, like in Godzilla, are underdeveloped and it’s surprising how many great actors are in this movie with so little to do. You could have replaced Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston with any actor in the middle of the film and you wouldn’t even notice because of how bland their characters are. John Goodman’s character, the reason why everyone is on Skull Island, only gets a minute or two of exposition before he’s relegated to the backseat. There were even times I could tell what days John Goodman wasn’t on set because of how little screen time he has. Samuel Jackson’s Packard should be the most interesting character in the film after he holds a Captain Ahab-like grudge against Kong for destroying his battalion but the Moby Dick influence felt so forced and unearned that it was laughable; however, the imagery of Packard matching hate-filled eyes with Kong in a plume of fire is beautiful to behold.
If there’s one thing the movie is, it’s beautiful. The colors are vivid and most of the action takes place during the day, making each monster fight easy to follow and brimming with excitement. There are so many individual shots that add a sense of character in an otherwise characterless story. Dutch tilts, silhouettes, fast zooms, and fun montage sequences are used making every frame a breathtaking canvas.
If anyone thought the amount of licensed music in Suicide Squad was egregious, wait until they see Kong. Every hit of the 60s and early 70s were on display here and while it is at least done with some sentiment and homage to that era of film and history, it’s noticeable when it’s a new song every five minutes. The good thing is that in their effort to emulate the early 70s, post-Vietnam War, I think they did an exceptional job. The movie felt of that era as much as it did in Apocalypse Now, which Kong heavily borrows inspiration from down to its look, its characters, and the boat the team uses to get across the island.
My biggest complaint is with the film’s tone. One moment it feels like a fun throwback to the Showa era of Godzilla and Gamera with some light comedy and fun action but then it shifts to scenes too serious to be believable that you begin laughing. And often the movie makes death seem too comical for how gruesome some characters are taken out.
The saving grace through the whole thing besides Kong, because we already knew Kong was gonna be great, was John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow. Marlow’s the only character I was invested in as they add a subplot in the latter parts of the film that call back to the beginning, suddenly making the twenty years he’s been stuck on Skull Island more interesting than the half-baked chemistry between Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson.
Kong: Skull Island is fun action saddled by poor characters. Some of the action makes up for Kong’s faults but there were so many moments like Godzilla where I just wish I had a fast forward button to get to the monster fights.