I’m going to break one of my own rules established when I began this review column and provide a review for a new, mainstream blockbuster film. In a broad sense, I’m doing this simply because I can; admin power is not worth having unless it is wielded capriciously. But in a much more focused sense, I’m doing this because this film falls firmly in my wheelhouse. It is an American kaiju eiga, and there are damned few bigger fans of this genre in the world than your intrepid author.
I hope that it is not too much of a letdown when I tell you that even as someone radically predisposed to enjoying this sort of film, I found Kong: Skull Island to be an unsatisfying experience. Let’s delve a little into what brought this film about, and see where things went wrong.
This movie is a direct result of the existence of Marvel Comics. More specifically, the new Hollywood craze of “shared universe” largely instituted by the success of the Marvel films, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man. Shared universes existed previously, of course, mostly in linear sequels which often only obliquely referenced the events of prior films in the series. Perhaps the most famous and successful shared universe pre-Marvel was the Star Wars franchise. However, Marvel took it to an entirely new level, with cross-over cameos, and explicit tie-ins canonically linking each movie into a specific place and event sequence in the universe, and where actions in each film had direct repercussions upon the subsequent films in other lines (Agent Smith’s capture of the Tesseract in the first Captain America story having a direct influence not only on the first Avengers movie, but also creating the overarching story of the hunt for the Infinity Gems/Stones, as they are called in the comics and film series, respectively). This level of cross-promotional bonanza was unheard of before the wild success enjoyed by Marvel, and other studios have been scrambling to catch up ever since (and mostly failing – suck it, Warner Bros.!). Even one of the previews for this film is for another franchise-starter for a shared universe, The Mummy. Universal is hoping to rehash all their classic monsters in new, gritty films in which the monsters will all presumably eventually work together. This will lead to a steaming pile of crap, OR possibly be one of the greatest movies ever made.
Never ones to pass up an opportunity to copy something else more successful, studio after studio began planning sessions on which properties they could franchise into endless streams of summer blockbusters in shared universes. In 2010, Legendary Entertainment had acquired the rights from Toho Co. for a big-budget American Godzilla film. This led to the Gareth Edwards 2014 film, titled simply, Godzilla. I thought it was very well done, but I’ll not say more lest you heathens receive two reviews for the price of one.
After the success of that film, in which Legendary partnered with Warner Bros. for financing and distribution, some bright bulb thought to check and see if WB had or could secure the rights to our own homegrown giant monster, King Kong. Sure enough, they did, and Shared Universe Mania did the rest.
However, you can’t simply launch straight into a two-marquee monster mash-up without the mortar of the shared universe structure, which in the industry is called universe building. A more prosaic term might be “let’s see how many of these cash-grabs we can shit out before having to get to the main event”. And so Kong: Skull Island was born in their small, fevered minds.
Our story takes place in 1973. Fancy-pants cryptozoologist (fun fact: Microsoft Office does not recognize that as a real word, just like it isn’t a real job) John Goodman has discovered a new island in the South Pacific, where he believes be dragons. He fakes an interest in cartography and securing any unknown natural resources of this island before the Soviets can get their red claws on it, and manages to convince the gub’mint to provide him with an Air Cav escort led by regular-pants Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is an officer who is bitter over America’s seeming defeat in the Vietnam War, and looking for one last mission to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless age.
With Too Tall and Snake Shit in tow (damn, wrong movie), along with stock issue anti-war journalist Brie Larson, and drunken burned out former SAS devastatingly handsome devil-may-care mercenary Tom Hiddleston, the stage is set. Upon flying over Skull Island on an investigatory bombing run (yes, I meant what I typed: it’s part of a geological survey cover story so preposterous I don’t want to spoil it for you), the entire force is knocked out of the sky by Kong. The remainder of the film is the story of groups of survivors trying to make their way to a pre-planned rendezvous with a resupply mission from the cargo ship they arrived in. Jackson wants to kill Kong to avenge his dead soldiers, whereas the civilians are only worried about getting the hell off the island. Various giant beasties make their usually violent appearances, and we meet the taciturn natives of the island, who have taken in stranded World War II fighter pilot John C. Reilly.
It’s a hell of a cast. Legendary obviously was willing to spend All Of The Money to make this thing work. The problems, though, begin to surface early.
First, I honestly thought that Goodman and Reilly turned in the only worthwhile performances in this film, and even then barely. The characters are written so thinly that they all come across as clichéd archetypes, from the Handsomely Brooding Very Serious Hiddleston to Jackson’s bitter war vet, played by the actor shockingly against type as a loud badass angry black man. Reilly is genuinely funny as the comic relief, though there’s nothing in his performance that you haven’t seen before, so if you weren’t a fan of him in Talladega Nights or Step Brothers, there won’t be much for you here.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seems to be aware of the paucity of actual artistic effort going into this movie, and we’re introduced to the titular giant ape extremely early in the film. I suppose he knows why people are coming to see this movie, and it isn’t just to find out it was a fucking sled from his fucking childhood (I still get angry thinking about that, at random times throughout the day). His only other full-length efforts prior to this were the indy film The Kings of Summer, and 49-minute runtime made-for-tv movie Cocked. Being given the keys to the kingdom on such a large production so early in one’s career paid off handsomely with an at-the-time still relatively unknown Gareth Edwards and Godzilla (Gareth got that job on the really quite good indy alien invasion film, Monsters, before using his kaiju success to then land the plum directorial job for Rogue One), but here Vogt-Roberts’s fails to bring life to an already torpid script.
The effects, always of paramount concern in a film such as this, are passable. It is, of course, a CGI crap-fest, but since that is the future of all film, I suppose I have to rein in my old man frustration and forever bury my man-crushes for the masters of the practical. If the names Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin mean nothing to you, you are a sad, deprived little person.
There are call-backs to Jurassic Park (Mr. Jackson tells his men to, “Hold on to your butts!”), the original King Kong Vs. Godzilla (giant octopus fight scene), and universe building with the 2014 Godzilla. The secretive government-sponsored Monarch Corporation is a prime player, and Godzilla-related past events shown in the earlier film are referenced again in this one.
Already announced: the next film to be released will be Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), followed by Godzilla vs. Kong (2020). Hold on to your butts.
Ultimately I rate Kong: Skull Island 12 Bags of Cat Food out of a possible 20.