Kong: Skull Island is a movie that exists for one reason and one reason only: In 2020, Godzilla and King Kong are going to fight each other, a clash of the two most well-known monsters in cinematic history. The giant lizard got his own establishment movie in 2014 with Gareth Edward’s underrated Godzilla. Three years later it’s Kong’s turn. The resulting film is a big, dumb action-fest that’s only interested in checking boxes and looking badass while doing it. Thing is, maybe that’s ok?
Skull Island drops us in the 1970’s as the Vietnam War draws to a close. A private company named Monarch, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman), discovers an uncharted island in the Pacific and gets government approval to go investigate it. They’re given a military escort led by Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former British Intelligence Officer turned tracker and general badass. Also Brie Larson tags along as war photographer Mason Weaver, because when you’re going on a top secret mission with nefarious purposes, you want a journalist there to take pictures for some reason.
All of these characters get as minimal set up as possible. Skull Island isn’t really interested in things like character development or story. Peter Jackson’s King Kong this isn’t. The movie spins into fast forward to make sure we get to the titular island as quickly as possible. And as soon as we do, things get crazy. Gareth Edwards was often criticized for choosing to use Godzilla sparingly in his film. His movie takes pains to not give us a full shot of the monster until it heads towards its climax. Seemingly in response to this, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s modus operandi is “show me the monkey!” Within 10 seconds of arriving at the island, we see Kong, a full wide shot, in broad daylight. The king, standing in all his glory. Then he kicks the shit out of all of our heroes.
The biggest problems in Kong lie in how ill-defined those heroes are. It seemed that the general plan was to cast a bunch of really talented actors and throw them at an underbaked script and then hope everything just kind of worked itself out. It didn’t. Sure, Brie Larson, John Goodman, and Tom Hiddleston give it their all, but none of them really have anything to do here. When we meet Hiddleston’s Conrad, we immediately get an example of his competence as he makes quick work of some pissed off drunks, but this established badassdom is never replicated again in the film that follows. Larson’s entire purpose seems to be standing there in a tank top being a girl until we give her some random “connection” with Kong because that’s what the girl does in these movies. There are a couple other great performances by Straight Outta Compton vets Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, but again, I wish the script gave them more to do than just be fodder for some monsters. Sam Jackson gets the most to work with. His Colonel Packard is disillusioned with his country after they “abandoned” the Vietnam war and sees killing Kong as a way to finish the fight. It’s part Ahab, part Colonel Kurtz, and all Sam “Mother Effing” Jackson. In a deeper movie, there would be something really interesting here, but Packard is as one-note as the rest of the proceedings. The result is you just don’t really care about any of these people. You don’t care about what they want or if they live or die. They’re just means to an end. The end being a giant ape using a tree as a baseball bat.
The lone exception to all this is John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, a World War II pilot that crashed on the island in the forties and has been living with the native population ever since. Comic relief mixed with exposition dump, Reilly seems to be the only one who really understands what kind of movie he is in: an incredibly silly and incredibly dumb B Monster movie. His character is a bit crazy, but filled with enough pathos that you actually care if he lives or dies. He also attacks giant lizard things with a Samurai sword. Did I mention this movie was silly?
While all the human characters clearly got the short shrift, the CGI ones did not. Kong looks absolutely wonderful. Industrial Light & Magic have managed to create one of the best looking CGI monsters ever to grace the big screen. In 2004, Peter Jackson set out to make a King Kong that looked, moved, and felt like a real gorilla. Only, you know, bigger. ILM’s Kong is something else entirely. At 100 feet tall, this is one of the biggest Kongs ever created and you can feel that size. You can feel how he moves and fights. This Kong is our protagonist. He stands entirely upright and lumbers along, constantly guarding his island against the monsters that live below it. He sits down in a lake and washes out his wounds. He hunts giant octopuses and slurps up their tentacles like spaghetti. He manages to be simultaneously animalistic but also not entirely recognizable. In Skull Island, Kong is truly monstrous.
And he kicks total ass, too. Director Vogt-Roberts is another example of the “make one hit indie movie (The Kings of Summer) and be gifted with a 150+ million dollar franchise” trend that’s been all too common in Hollywood lately. Fortunately, he directs this movie with a clear focus: Giant Monsters. Make them fight each other. Make it look awesome. There are so many shots and scenes in the course of this film that are jaw-droppingly beautiful. From composition to camera movement, this isn’t the hyper-cutting noise of a Michael Bay movie. It’s filmmaking with a terrific sense of awe and scale with action that never loses sense of that size and weight. Not since Pacific Rim has there been such glee-inducing monster carnage, and that movie has a robot beat a monster to death with an oil tanker.
At some point during the runtime of Skull Island, I realized that the movie I was watching was stupid. I realized that the script was underdeveloped, the characters boring, and the story non-existent. I realized that this movie really had no reason to exist, and it was just a necessary step in order to set up what was to come. And then I realized that I didn’t care. Kong: Skull Island is dumb, but it’s also an absolute blast. That’s all I really want from a monster movie. It is in this that Kong is king.