Kong: Skull Island doesn’t live up to 2014’s Godzilla or the 2005 version King Kong, but the central action set piece is reason enough to see it.
You know your movie has a problem when the most emotional image in your movie is of John C. Reilly holding a hot dog and beer watching the Cubs. However, the problems in Kong: Skull Island run deeper than that. The second movie in the Legendary MonsterVerse, yet another franchise that we didn’t know and probably don’t need, was preceded by Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film Godzilla. After being plucked from indie obscurity and trusted with a decades-old franchise, Edwards created a shockingly entertaining and well-crafted action piece with the film. The same thing happened with Kong director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, best known for The Kings of Summer, to lesser success. But that’s just the gamble you take with an untested director. Though I don’t think he’s going to be given a Star Wars movie the same way Edwards was, he certainly earns his stripes as an action director.
Following Peter Jackson’s epic and often emotional 2005 film King Kong was always going to be a hard task for whatever director took it on. Instead of taking place in 1933, Kong: Skull Island begins in the 70s at the tail end of the Vietnam war, which heavily influences the style of the movie. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) charter a government expedition to explore the never visited Skull Island. The first 20 minutes of the movie are dedicated to assembling the team, which is a quick and surprisingly entertaining process. They hire former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to guide the expedition. They are also escorted by a helicopter squadron, just about to go home from Vietnam, led by Lieutenant Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). When they arrive on the island, they drop seismic charges under the guise
of studying the geological structure of the island. Instead, they flush out a 100-foot tall gorilla. After Kong takes out all the helicopters, in an amazingly shot and directed sequence that certainly homages Apocolypse Now, the survivors must make their way to the extraction point on the north side of the island within three days while trying to survive the creatures living there.
The plot is tight and efficient, which is a change from the slower paced 2005 version. But where Godzilla withheld the title monster for as long as possible, Kong: Skull Island reveals its hand almost immediately by giving us a glimpse of the mythic beast. While that scene is exciting and beautifully realized — the highly publicized shot of the helicopters approaching Kong against a blazing sun is breathtaking onscreen — it gives you an instant high that is matched by the rest of the movie. All the action scenes following it feel dull in comparison. It’s a huge issue considering there’s not much outside of them that the film has to offer. Story wise, the movie integrates well into the universe — there are references to Monarch and stay for the post-credits scene — but it feels like a franchise starter instead of its own movie.
Not only is the plot subpar, the characters feel like they’re made to die and the ones that have some purpose are so dull that you wouldn’t even care if they were gone. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist looking to uncover a government conspiracy, is the closest we get to a charismatic character — she’s meant to step into the Naomi Watts character from the 2005 film — but we care about her because the film tells us to care about her. We get good performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Corey Hawkins, and John Goodman, but they aren’t given enough material to make a strong impression. The one character with an arc is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II fighter pilot who crash landed on the island 28 years before the expedition arrived. And while he gets some great laughs, it amounts to not much else.
I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island enough to recommend it to B-movie lovers. If you were one of the people who felt jilted by the lack of Godzilla in Godzilla, then this movie is going to satisfy your tastes. If anything, that first action set pieces and the truly fantastic visual effects and cinematography are enough to recommend. But on the giant monster movie scale, it ranks above the 1998 Godzilla and below the 2005 King Kong, 2014 Godzilla, and even Pacific Rim.