2014’s revival of Godzilla found the titular monster in a significant role reversal. While still fearsome and menacing, Godzilla was the hero, saving humanity from a slew of scary, less marketable monsters. Kong: Skull Island, set in the same universe, asks a similar question: what if… King Kong… were the good guy?
If audiences were frustrated with how long Godzilla took to introduce “The King of Monsters,” they need not worry about Kong: Skull Island. Kong appears in the first scene and he is huge. Perhaps too big, but it’s clear the film wants to entertain. Every confrontation is somehow more crazy and intense than the last, culminating in some of the most insane imagery I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 movie. Unfortunately, the film’s desire to be a crowd pleaser ends up sacrificing style and coherence for wow factor.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who joins the indie-to-blockbuster pipeline after directing 2013’s The Kings of Summer), Kong: Skull Island is set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. A group of scientists and military personnel want to explore a mystical island before its coordinates are exposed to the Russians. After dropping several bombs, they are greeted by a furious Kong who destroys all of their helicopters, killing most of the people inside them (you can tell who is going to survive initial impact based on who gets close ups before the mission begins). However, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Kong’s intentions are more than primitive.
Kong: Skull Island differentiates itself from previous iterations by having less to do with imperialism and more to do with survival, although unresolved issues of race and masculinity are still present. Spread across the island, the survivors form groups to try to reach the north end, where a rescue mission is set to arrive in three days. Cutting between these ensembles, the movie is able to visit various island locations and introduce a variety of monsters.
While this strategy of intercutting plotlines leads to a rapid pace and a diversity of goals, none of the characters or narratives get enough development to seem fulfilling. Kong: Skull Island’s screenplay could stand to go through a few more redrafts. Understandably, the main attraction is all of the battles, but the dialogue in between is messy and doesn’t serve any purpose. Relationships stay mostly stagnant, which makes the ending’s attempted emotional catharsis worthless. Most of the actors are celebrities or at least noted character actors whose purpose is to recycle old emotional attachment. In any case, the movie doesn’t give them a whole lot to work with.
Aside from Kong, Tom Hiddleston is billed as the top attraction for the film. He is introduced as the sole white dude in an Asian bar, and despite his white karate skills, he is completely useless. He mostly wallows in self-importance, providing inane insight and taking all of the credit for his group’s survival. Hiddleston’s performance is clunky and his chest is perpetually protruding, leading to some awkward blocking.
The Hiddlesquad takes the most narrative focus, with other important players tagging along in the group. Brie Larson, fulfilling the latter role in the “Beauty and the Beast” metaphor, is a well-respected photographer who somehow only brought one lens to an uncharted island. Oscar in one hand, camera in the other, she is great, as always. The real treat, however, is John C. Reilly as a near three-decade inhabitant of the island. He provides a majority of the comic relief of the film as well as the heart, since his character, stuck on the island since WWII, has some genuine development.
The “Skull Crawlers,” Reilly argues, are the real threat. They are basically giant lizards that have skulls for heads, and are the only real match for Kong. The Skull Crawlers reside underground (the island is hollow, they explain), and they make appearances on land at night by climbing through vents in the ground. However, because of the bombs, a group of Skull Crawlers have started to show up in the daytime.
But before the Skull Crawlers can wreck havoc, Kong: Skull Island takes the opportunity to introduce some other monsters. A second group, mostly composed of military members and led by Samuel L. Jackson, takes off in search of Jackson’s right hand man, Chapman (Toby Kebell). In their quest, they face a whole slew of creatures that want nothing more than to eat humans.
This is where the movie thrives. There is always a new monster for the characters to face, and the creature design never feels redundant. Lots of characters meet their untimely demise, but it always feels like the numbers are getting smaller, rather than the movie replenishing its extras so the monsters have something to do.
The monsters interact fluidly in the environment, and it almost never feels like the characters are fighting something that isn’t there. There are exceptions, though. Because so much of the movie was shot on set, the moments where characters are standing in front of a green screen become glaringly obvious. Similarly, I gained a lot of respect for Moana, because Kong: Skull Island proves that animating water is no simple task.
The new story arc is a good change of pace from the King Kong narrative we’ve heard time and time again, but there are also some nice throwbacks to the original. While a major purpose for Kong: Skull Island is to set up the 2020 “Godzilla vs. King Kong “movie, the film still works as an independent entity. It’s messy and chaotic, but the camp is part of its charm. It’s good to be King.