I’ve always found fun and enjoyable aspects in all the ‘kaiju’ movies I’ve seen, especially the ones features that atomic badass we all know and love…Godzilla. Now if you want to talk about a long-running film franchise that has had it’s definite share of ups and downs, quality-wise, look no further than the big nuclear lizards line-up. There is some hilariously bad shit out there, especially the insanely cheesy entries from the late 60’s / early 70’s, but after the debacle that was Roland Emmerich’s ill-fated (yet, at times, enjoyable) 1998 American attempt to get in on some ‘Zilla action, it was decided that a total reboot was needed, if Hollywood was going to contend in the Kaiju Movie game. In 2014, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures handed the reins for a new Godzilla flick to novice director Gareth Edwards, who would later go on to successfully direct ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’. His monster flick was…good, but not great. I really liked the tone and presentation, but I found the characters dull as fuck. We all know the great Bryan Cranston SHOULD’VE been the main character, not robotic Aaron Taylor Johnson, but he wasn’t…and everyone else simply didn’t engage me as the narrative played out. The visuals, especially when Godzilla or the MUTOs were onscreen, were cool. But, as has been accurately pointed out MANY times before…we just didn’t get enough Godzilla action…for a movie called ‘Godzilla’. Regardless, the flick made some solid bank, leading WB and Legendary to start eyeing the ‘shared universe’ concept that Marvel, DC and Disney were embracing, some more successfully than others. After all, there’s a shit-load of giant monsters out there that they can try to modernize and squeeze new life,*cough*…Money…*cough*, out of. Which brings us to ‘Kong: Skull Island’.
I didn’t think too much of this one when I first heard of it’s conception…until I saw the first trailer. Right off the bat, I liked what I saw. As a sucker for Vietnam War movies (don’t ask me why), I was drawn into the time period and the aesthetic, as the early 70’s seemed like an interesting and vibrant time to set this new origin story in. So, with rain in the air and a mild hangover in my head, I sauntered on down to the local movie house to check it out.
After a cool 1944-set prologue in which we see a US P-51 Mustang and a Japanese Zero crash on a nameless beach, and the subsequent fight and foot-chase of the two pilots into the jungle, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ opens in 1973, as Nixon is announcing the commencement of the draw-down of American forces in South East Asia. We meet ‘Randa’ (John Goodman) and ‘Brooks’ (Corey Hawkins), two members of a mysterious research company who, through early satellite photography, have discovered an uncharted island in the South China Sea. Believing the Russians may also try to stake a claim, they persuade a Senator to arrange a military escort to the island. We then meet ‘Packard’ (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of a US attack squadron of helicopters, who is lamenting the end of the war and the loss of his sense of purpose. He and his men are called back to duty one last time, to help carry this murky expedition out. Coupled with a hot war correspondent named ‘Mason’ (Brie Larson) and an ex-SAS soldier-turned-tracker named ‘Conrad’, (Tom Hiddleston), the group of troops and scientists fly through the eerie weather-front that shrouds the island and are soon conducting seismic experiments on the mountainous, jungle landscape…using high explosives. This plan is quickly ruined by a certain ape of monstrous size that proceeds to destroy every chopper they have, stranding the survivors on this strange and threatening island…and they’re definitely not alone.
I went into this with fairly low expectations but in the end, this movie was mostly entertaining, with a cool visual style that made me think of comic books…and I mean that as a compliment. Which isn’t to say that this movie isn’t without it’s problems. It definitely had some, mostly in the script and characterization departments. But before we get into THAT…
This movie looks pretty. There’s some really inspired visuals on display, and cool use of composition and color. In many respects, if you told me that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was directly influenced by the filmography of Zack Snyder (‘Sucker Punch’), I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest. There was an artistic ‘slickness’ to many of the visuals, especially the ones that took direct cues from classic Vietnam War movie imagery. I also chose to check out the 3D version and the format was MOSTLY used well, in conjunction with the vibrant color palette and creative use of angles. There were some times where it seemed that they could’ve gone a bit ‘deeper’ with the 3rd dimension but other times, it worked really well.
There’s a slew of weird creatures that inhabit Skull Island, besides ‘Kong’ himself, and I think they were mostly pretty cool, in their designs and execution. Unfortunately, like the characters, I think they get short-changed by the abruptness of some of the editing.
I guess I might as well tuck into what didn’t work for me here. As I mentioned, the characters were all very one-note and lacking in anything resembling ‘depth’. As the movie played out, I was surprised to discover that almost everybody is just a ‘red shirt’…simply there to die. The shitty part was that there was never any preamble or suspense leading up to many of the character deaths. They were there, the potential for development starts to emerge…and suddenly dead (much like Charles Dance’s character ‘Clemens’ from ‘Alien 3’). This went for EVERYBODY. No one was safe here…but not in a good, tension-building way. Normally that would be totally fine, but MANY of the deaths had no buildup or stakes. Out of the blue, something weird would happen, usually involving one of the dangerous beasts on the island and a character would then just…be…dead. Hell, one dude is in the middle of a conversation on the bow of a boat when, out of nowhere and in no service to the plot whatsoever, some winged dinosaur monster flies in and scoops him up…and kills him, just like that. Another character, who for some unknown reason suddenly becomes stoic and suicidal, has a big slow-mo lead up to the Ultimate Sacrifice for the team, with the arming of grenades and the dramatic approach of the monster, only to be unceremoniously tail-swatted aside to explode on the other side of a river. The way this story treated it’s characters seemed to give them no regard whatsoever and, at times, it was verging on being unintentionally comical. They were badly undeveloped and disposable…which had an ‘arms length’ effect for me, which in turn made me simply WATCH ‘Kong: Skull Island, not GET INTO IT, like I would’ve liked. There are also some times where the tone came off as confused and the attempts at levity mostly came off as ‘half baked’ or badly timed. Some of the jokes stuck the landing…but just as many, if not more, fell on their faces. I also had an issue with John C. Reilly’s ever-changing facial hair. He plays the older version of the shot-down US pilot in the prologue, and his Homeless Guy beard kept changing length throughout the movie…and it was hella distracting! There’s even a scene where he makes a big deal of ‘what will the man under the beard look like after all these years’, as he prepares to shave (we even see him start cutting), only to cut to a different scene…and the beard was never touched! That’s some shitty continuity.
Back to The Good. The sequences in which ‘Kong’ is fighting, either with some giant creature or against a squadron of attacking Huey’s, are pretty solid, from a visual stand-point. Again, I found much of the visual design and composition to be inventive and well-used. It just didn’t help that some of the editing was a little on the choppy side. The CG for ‘Kong’ was really good. I still thorougly enjoy Peter Jackson’s 2005 ‘King Kong’ and thought the graphics for the Big Ape then (and still today) are pretty damn good, but I will admit that these ones were sexy too. Many of the sequences following the choppers into battle were slick also, only occasionally becoming too video game-like as the ‘digital’ camera swept in and out of the aerial action with a bit more verve than it may have needed.
All in all, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ was mostly a pretty but largely disposable piece of escapist entertainment, that had some problems with it’s structure and pacing that were not helped by characters that were extremely thinly defined and easily disposed of. The action scenes are slick and exciting, and I will admit that I’m curious to see what the inevitable ‘throw down’ between King Kong and Godzilla will be as a result of what I saw, not to mention the strongly hinted at incarnations of ‘Mothra’, ‘King Ghidora’, and ‘Rodan’ that they’re going to try to throw at us. If you want a movie where you can just turn your brain off and munch popcorn in the darkness while watching large, stake-less action play out involving strange monsters and stupid people, you’ll probably be well served here. As mindless Time Waster movies go…you could do a LOT worse than ‘Kong: Skull Island’.