It makes sense that a studio would want to attempt a giant monsters cross-over again in the current trend for desiring shared universes, and considering that the Japanese production King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) is one of the earlier examples of such a movie. So in case you didn’t know, Kong: Skull Island takes place in the same universe as 2014’s Godzilla, but at a completely different time point so they are generally more unrelated, save for mentions of the mysterious Monarch organisation, and while the two most iconic movie monsters of all time are clearly being positioned for a future confrontation, Skull Island is its own story and not all a big set-up.
Godzilla was a frustrating movie in that it kept Godzilla himself offscreen for the vast majority of its running time, teasing the reveal for ages, then cutting immediately away once it finally came. There are supercuts online now of all the scenes featuring Godzilla that run around 10 mins of the 2 hour movie. Keeping your monster offscreen is all well and good if the surrounding human characters are compelling, but they unfortunately weren’t in Godzilla, (quick, without checking can you even remember who the main character was?). Similarly, the slow-build technique can be effective but only if the pay-off is satisfactory. Kong: Skull Island, opts for a different approach regarding its monsters, having Kong appear clearly, early and often, but completely fails to solve the surrounding human problem.
The film takes place in 1973, as the Vietnam War is just ending; two employees of the government organisation Monarch (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) manage to persuade a senator to grant them a military escort to survey a previously uncharted island in the South Pacific, and quickly need to assemble a suitable team to venture there. The film attempts to establish a huge group of characters, far too many really, with the scantest of details in its opening act while failing to make any one of them particularly interesting, however, all is forgiven once their helicopters plow through the endless storms that surround Skull Island, to the seeming tropical paradise beyond.
By far the best sequence in the film occurs the moment they arrive; their convey of helicopters are greeted by Kong himself, in full daylight, much bigger than he’s ever been before, Kong takes out the choppers in spectacular fashion. The effects work here in top-notch, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts employs some fun editing techniques to make the fight scene both lively and scary. The film comes to life in this moment, delivering on the monster action potential I’d hoped this film would. Unfortunately, it’s a case of showing your hand too early for Kong, the film is never this good again.
There are several more monster scenes in the film, some of which just involve uninspiring oversized buffalo-type creatures appearing, but there are a few more decent effects sequences as well. The film gets a big fright out of the appearance of a giant spider monster, and I must admit it was a friend who pointed this out to me, but must mark the only time a $100 million+ blockbuster has made a Cannibal Holocaust reference. Perhaps knowing audience’s fondness for the character, Skull Island doesn’t want to make Kong himself to be the primary threat though, instead it’s revealed that there are other more threatening creatures underground that Kong keeps away, and the final battle the film builds towards is Kong vs a larger version of one of those, it goes on a bit too long but still has some decent and inventive moments.
Vogt-Roberts, one of the more surprising directors to follow the Sundance Indie hit to immediate huge franchise blockbuster pattern after rural drama The Kings of Summer, shows that he can handle the big effects work but struggles greatly with the films muddled tone, which shifts around all the time. Overall, it’s been clear since the Apocalypse Now-mirroring marketing that the film was aiming for the feel of a Vietnam War epic, which could work as it did for Aliens but Vogt Roberts leans into it far too heavily, dwelling on imagery (it was partially shot there), references and a really on-the-nose soundtrack of period rock songs.
In addition, the film tries to balance being goofy-fun and scary-serious in a manner that never really lands, never more so apparent than a moment when it tries to turn a heroic, self-sacrificial moment into a comedy death scene, the joke just backfires because of the scenes that have surrounded it. Similarly, this is the latest film to make an absolute joke of the PG-13 rating, there’s one moment when a character is literally ripped limb from limb.
What surrounds the monster scenes are where the major issues lie with Skull Island, we’re treated to multiple scenes of military guys and the accompanying scientists wandering around, trying to re-group in order to get off the island and/or deal with the threats. Such scenes are often boring and repetitive but what’s most annoying is how stupid and useless almost all the characters are. We should have been suspicious when they reveal their initial plan when they reach the island is to drop bombs on it for “surveillance” but they truly are a bunch of idiots.
The nominal lead is Tom Hiddleston as an ex-British Special Forces Captain hired as he’s supposedly an expert tracker. He’s introduced in a bar fight than establishes him as some sort of badass not to be messed with, but then he does almost nothing of use the entire film. Similarly, Brie Larson is an accompanying photojournalist who’s a completely bland non-character, you’d have trouble believing this was her first role after winning an Oscar as she’s so lifeless. There’s also a young scientist played by Jing Tian who is so obviously just there to appeal to the Chinese market; she barely has 5 lines and serves no notable purpose.
The majority of the other characters are a series of expendable military guys and accomplices, who the film goes out of its way to try and make you care about yet fails to achieve. It’s more disappointing considering that many are played by actors we know are good too, most notably Toby Kebbell who due to a terribly written sub-plot in which he’s constantly writing letters to his son might as well be walking around with a target on his face. We all know he’s so obviously going to die and soon yet a great chunk of the film involves the other characters, led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Lieutenant Colonel being convinced that he’s survived out there by himself.
This was the most frustrating aspect of Skull Island for me, that no-one stands up to Jackson’s Colonel even when he’s so clearly deluded. They could just leave him, they don’t have to keep following his orders yet they do, repeatedly, into situations that will almost certainly bring about their deaths! Even when a couple of people do, they ultimately go along with him and his foolhardy plans. Hiddleston, who could supposedly take down any of these guys single handedly doesn’t try and stop Jackson either, and allows himself, and the other accompanying civilians to enter a large bone-filled swamp where they are explicitly told monsters will try and kill them, and for no good reason. They are all just too stupid.
Jackson is at least having some fun with the role, and the movie attempts to establish a tired Moby Dick/Ahab situation between Kong and himself, but he undermines his performance by being too self-referential, even dropping in catchphrases from other movies of his. When Hiddleston finally decides to do what he so clearly should have earlier, his change of heart is unconvincing and it’s a case of too little, too late after all the previous idiocy. Ditto for the film’s limp attempt to establish a protective connection between Kong and Larson.
There is one bright spot among the cast however, which is John C. Reilly as a World War II pilot who’s been stranded on the island for 28 years. He’s far more interesting than anyone else, actually serves a purpose to the story, and is the only person who succeeds in being funny, yet is not purely comic relief. Apparently Vogt-Roberts has said that he’s considered making a prequel just about Reilly’s time on the island and honestly, it would probably be a better movie. Even so, this might have improved had he been the protagonist. Even he isn’t completely immune from the following Jackson into deadly situations problem though.
I must admit that I find a lot of the older Kaiju movies somewhat boring, with the intermittent monster fights being the selling points. Now both the modern Godzilla and Kong movies have replicated that on a massive scale, I’m not really interested in seeing Skull Island again but maybe I’d click on a supercut of “all Kong scenes” on YouTube if I saw it. I suppose it’s in the spirit of the older movies (though notably, *not* the original King Kong), but I don’t believe for a second that was the intention. This is by no means sufficiently bad to put me off seeing further films in this upcoming “MonsterVerse”, which a post-credits scene teases, but as demonstrated by Godzilla, this and emphasised by John C. Reilly’s appearance, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to surround your big budget monster action with characters who weren’t so boring and/or stupid?