Kong: Skull Island is the second film in a planned 4-part series created by Warner Bros, Legendary Pictures, and Toho (the Japanese studio that originally created Godzilla). The film’s predecessor, Godzilla (2014), was directed by Gareth Edwards following his critically acclaimed indie film Monsters (2010). While not a great movie overall, Godzilla has remained one of my favorite movie-going experiences. Seeing it in IMAX 3D really reminded me – as someone who looks down on 3D movies in general – what kinds of spectacles film-makers are capable of creating when they use their tech to its fullest extent. Seeing the King of Monsters on that huge screen and feeling his roar shake the very foundations of the theater brought out the little kid in me. Watching the film outside of this setting swiftly brought me back to cynical adulthood, however, and I quickly realized that this was a movie meant to be seen with a gigantic screen and powerful speakers.
I went into Kong: Skull Island hoping to receive a special treat similar to the one I was given for spending the extra cash to see Godzilla in IMAX 3D.
The film’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is a relatively new player. Much like Edwards, Vogt-Roberts only has prior experience on his indie film, Kings of Summer (2013). He also directed all 30 episodes of the hit TV series Single Dads, which ran from 2009-2011 and doesn’t even have an image or summary on IMDB.
So, the stage is set for Kong to finally enter the ring with Godzilla. How did he match up?
While Godzilla wasn’t too keen on giving audiences a riveting narrative, it still blew Kong out of the water with its ability to focus on a few characters and show their experiences. Kong is a mosh pit of characters whose names I don’t remember and don’t really care to know.
[WARNING: Spoilers Ahead (though you really shouldn’t care)]
There are only two semi-interesting characters in this film: the one played by John C. Reilly, and the one played by Samuel L. Jackson (huh, both go by 1-letter middle names). Reilly’s character has been stranded on Skull Island since WWII, and Jackson’s character is a duty-driven soldier who only sees the world in blacks-and-whites (or, more appropriately, friends and enemies). After arriving on Skull Island and dropping several bombs, Kong retaliates against Jackson for disturbing his power-nap by destroying all of his helicopters and subsequently killing most of his men. Because of this, Kong can only be seen as an enemy in Jackson’s eyes. In contrast, Reilly’s almost 30 years of living on the island have taught him that Kong is a protector, not a destroyer. Conflict rises between the two. Unfortunately, there are more attractive and blander characters that are given the majority of the spotlight. So, rather than having a character-driven conflict, our 1-dimensional “stars” are forced to pick sides, and inevitably see the good side of Kong so that they can save the day.
What about Kong himself? Historically, the biggest difference between Kong and Godzilla is how human Kong turns out to be compared to the unstoppable force of Godzilla. Kong is much more of a character rather than a pure monster. Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) showed this best when Andy Serkis put on a spectacular performance as Kong in another of his motion-capture masterpieces (still waiting for him to get recognition for this from the Academy). This Kong is a shell of his former self. He’s mostly an overly aggressive animal that only shows moments of characterization when he chooses not to crush Brie Larson, decides not to crush Brie Larson again, and then saves her from drowning. There is no reason for you to care about Kong other than you came to see him punch some dinosaurs and you’d probably ask for your money back if he died halfway through the film and ceased his punching-spree.
The movie also can’t find anything new for Kong to do. If you saw the 2005 film, then you’ll easily recognize several things that seem to have been stolen straight from that movie. Was it cool to see Kong kill a T-Rex by prying its jaws apart then? Yes. Was it cool to see him try it again? No, no it was not.
Lastly, more than half of this film is exposition, and some of it is repeated more than once. Most of this comes from John Goodman’s and Reilly’s characters since they are the most knowledgeable, but their exposition is often then repeated by their protégés. The amount of exposition might have been forgivable if there was a balance between action and dialogue, but the film is surprisingly mostly dialogue.
Despite the star-studded cast, DO NOT expect any great performances from this film. The fact of the matter is that no one is really given much to work with. Jackson and Reilly are given the most, and they do what they can, but most of it still falls flat. Goodman was visibly and audibly awkward throughout the entire film. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson (who won the Oscar for Best Actress last year, in case you forgot) are just there to look good. The worst scenes are when these characters try to be funny. It’s very uncomfortable and awkward. The only two funny characters are, once again, Jackson and Reilly’s.
Did Kong measure up to Godzilla in terms of the IMAX experience? No, it didn’t even come close. Because Kong appears mostly during the daytime and in full view, he cost a lot more money than the King of Monsters, who preferred the cover of darkness and the San Francisco fog. The CGI simply does not stand up to how cleverly and sparingly it was used in Godzilla. That being said, Jordan Vogt-Roberts took a lot more creative liberties with this project that Gareth Edwards did with his. There are some really cool visuals created with Vogt-Roberts emphasis on color and scale. There are also repetitive visuals that, while I doubt they carry any significance, really help to establish Vogt-Roberts own personal visual style. Overall, I was impressed with the amount of unconventionality that Vogt-Roberts was allowed to incorporate in such a conventional big-budget movie.
Notable scenes include, but are not limited to: Tom Hiddleston wearing a gas mask through bright green smoke slicing up creatures with a katana in slow-mo, a soldier watching bombs go off far below him through the reflection in his aviators (also in slow-mo), and Kong’s silhouette standing up in front of the rising sun (yes, more slow-mo).
First, the good. Henry Jackman’s score for this film is a unique sound that reminded me of a lot of gritty post-apocalyptic films. Jackman is a big player in the world of film composition, but he isn’t necessarily a big name. He’s mostly worked on big-budget films that you probably wouldn’t remember any of the music for. Exceptions to this might be Wreck-it Ralph, X-Men: First Class, Captain Phillips, and of course Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Now, the bad. This film is set immediately after the US’s departure from the Vietnam War, and it makes that apparent through its unashamed recycled soundtrack. Songs on this soundtrack are some of the most overplayed movie-songs of all time. This movie honestly competes well with Suicide Squad in terms of unashamed and confidently terrible soundtracks.
“The world is bigger than this!”
“… BITCH, PLEASE!”
Lines like this one are what makes Jackson’s and Reilly’s characters memorable. It almost makes me want to take more points off for them not being the main characters.
If you enjoyed films like Godzilla, Jurassic World, or (God help you if this is true) maybe even Suicide Squad, then I would say that this is a movie worth going to see in theaters where you can at least get to experience this on a big screen. The IMAX 3D experience is not really necessary for this one like it was for Godzilla. If you are not a fan of mediocre blockbusters in general, then this is one to avoid. Ultimately, this film isn’t able to hold a candle to Godzilla or King Kong, but if you expected it to, then you were fooling yourself from the get-go.