Kong: Skull Island is the second movie in the MonsterVerse, because every film company is now trying to copy Marvel's successful shared universe formula. I'm a fan of both the original King Kong movie and Peter Jackson's 2005 Kong remake, so I was excited to see this one. Additionally, the cast is phenomenal and includes some of my favorite actors, including Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. Unlike Jackson's remake, this Kong movie is an original story, which could have worked very well. I say "could have," because while it has its charms, the overall product is a bit of a mess.
Kong: Skull Island is by no means a terrible movie, but I can't believe the reviews are as overwhelmingly positive as they are. As I mentioned, it has its charms. First, what I liked about the movie:
- Kong's character. King Kong is not really a monster in this movie. True, he's probably the largest version of the character to date, but he's portrayed as the caretaker of Skull Island. He only attacks when threatened, just like a real gorilla. He keeps the island's true beasts in check, and the natives worship him as a god for his efforts. I was disappointed that Andy Serkis was not reprising his role as Kong, but the actor who played the role played it well, and his Kong is just as sympathetic. The only nitpick I have is that he doesn't walk like a gorilla. I assume this was a conscious decision by the filmmakers to more closely resemble the Kong of the original classic.
- The monster battles. Whether it's King Kong or the humans fighting the "skull crawlers," the movie is at its best when the monsters are on screen. The action choreography, though it's silly at times, is genuinely pretty thrilling throughout the film's two hour run. (Tom Hiddleston with a gas mask and a samurai sword is especially silly, but somehow still awesome.) My favorite sequences are Kong's first battle with the helicopters, and his last battle with "the big one." If you go just for the monster battles, you'll be satisfied (if not pleased).
- The Setting. Aside from the battles, the other strong point (and smart decision) of the film is the time and place. Setting the movie in present day wouldn't work, as the technology (especially satellites and drones) is too advanced. The 1970s allows for the use of some advanced weapons and technology, with the caveat that artificial satellites are a new phenomenon for the time period.
- The soundtrack. The soudtrack is NOT integrated into the film very well. In fact, at times the music just seems shoehorned in. However, any film with Black Sabbath, CCR, and David Bowie is worth a listen, in my book.
As the title of this post suggests, the monster battles are great, but the rest of the movie is clunky and plagued with problems. There's a lot wrong with Kong: Skull Island, so I'll only list the major flaws. If you have more to add, please do so in the comments.
- The human characters. Part of my excitement for this film was the cast: John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, Brie Larsen, Tom Hiddleston. These are all heavy hitters whose work I enjoy. However, the only human characters in this film who had any personality whatsoever were Jackson's and Reilly's characters. I don't even think it's because of the script; I think their natural charisma just shone through. I expected most of the characters just to be disposable fodder, but I didn't expect the two leads, Hiddleston and Larsen, to be so bland. Hiddleston? He's a tracker and a badass. That's it. Larsen? Photographer. You want more development than that? You're not getting it. Even John Goodman's character was forgettable. How do you put Walter Sobchek in the middle of Vietnam and screw it up?
- Direction/Editing. It's very sloppy and plagued with problems, so I don't even know where to begin. As long as the action on screen is a monster battle, the frame is a wide shot showcasing the action, and it's fine. If it's the other 80% of the movie, however, we have problems. The tone jumps from trying to be funny, to trying to be scary, and it's not really successful at either one. The pacing is all over the map, the editing is jolting, and it's hard to keep track of where things and people are located from one scene to the next. Hell, even from one cut to the next. It's even hard to keep track of time, which is a huge problem since the group's time limit to get off the island was established pretty early on. The audience's inability to keep track of the time limit destroys the urgency and tension.
- The use of Vietnam. Kong tries (at times) to be an antiwar movie in the vein of Platoon and Apocalypse Now, but it doesn't work. (The movie poster is even an homage to Coppola's superior film.) Some of the imagery works really well, like the silhouette of Kong against the sunset. However, the antiwar themes don't work because it's not that type of movie. More focus should have been on survival and adventure rather than revenge and laying the blame. The original Godzilla movie was a reaction against the use of nuclear weapons. It worked because the message was in the subtext. I think if the antiwar message was relegated to the subtext, it could have worked, but I can't be certain. I just know it doesn't work with what we were given.
- The special effects, at times. Some of the special effects look unfinished, frankly. The worst offender is a scene in which Hiddleston and Larsen have to stand up and defend Kong against Captain Ahab, er, Samuel L. Jackson. (Spoilers, I guess. But do you really care about the plot?) The compositing still has some dust around Kong's face and it's very distracting. The SFX team on King Kong did a superior job 12 years ago with inferior technology.
- The MonsterVerse. This is the same criticism I have of the Marvel Universe. As good (or bad) as the movies are, they're marred by forcing elements that don't belong to the story you're currently watching. I know why the studios are doing it; they're losing money and the hope is that a shared universe will force moviegoers to have to buy a ticket to all of the movies in the shared universe. I've got a better idea: make better movies! If a movie is good, it will find an audience.
If you are just in the mood to see King Kong do battle with giant reptiles, helicopters, and squids, you won't be disappointed. The monster battles are indeed fantastic. However, if you're going into this movie expecting much more, you'll be disappointed, as I was. Skull Island is basically a B-movie with an A-movie budget. Call me old fashioned, but I like my B-movies to look cheap and cheesy. Speaking of B-Movies, my friend (and client) Jordan over at B-Movie Film Vault wrote a review of Skull Island that's MUCH kinder and more forgiving than mine. Check it out here, and please support him. (Mainly so he can hire me to draw more monsters.)
Story: ★★ of 5
Action: ★★★½ of 5
Visuals: ★★ of 5
Overall: ★★½ of 5
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