What do we want when it comes to a “monster movie”? Do you focus on spectacle and let your creatures speak for themselves? Or should the human element be the driving force and move the monsters to the background? They’re important questions that film makers have been trying to nail down for the past 30 years. Kong: Skull Island spends the majority of its run time pondering these very questions and ends up trying to please too many groups in the process.
Kong himself has always been the king beast that studios have wanted to wrangle. Never staying longer than 2 pictures under one banner, the rights have gone from RKO to Toho to Paramount to DLG to Universal, before finding itself now in the hands of Warner Bros.
Skull Island begins in rather strong form, with a rousing prologue in 1944 that feels as if it belongs to some forgotten adventure serial. Planes fall from the sky crashing onto sandy beaches. The survivors make their way through a lush jungle, continuing until they reach a cliff to showdown. They’re interrupted by the first of many shots of Kong. Thankfully he is shrouded mostly in shadow, his size felt nevertheless as he dwarfs the puny humans. Unfortunately, though there are points where it dips its toe back in, the picture never fully embraces the pulpy nature that kicks things off.
After a quick credits sequence that recalls 2014’s Godzilla brings us to 1973 in Washington DC, we meet Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins). They’ve come to the Capitol in hopes of securing funding for an expedition to an uncharted island, before their company, MONARCH, declares bankruptcy. Randa is initially rebuffed, mostly due to past efforts concerning wild goose chases for mythological creatures and locations.
Wanting to get to Skull Island as soon as possible, a scant few scenes assemble the rather sizable crew that joins the MONARCH group. There’s a tracker/guide, Jack Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), introduced in a bar fight that seems to give him almost superhero-like reflexes. A photojournalist, Mason (Brie Larson) who is passing up a chance for the cover of LIFE magazine (remember this is 1973). An Army squad, lead by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), given the opportunity for one last mission before heading home from Vietnam. Rounding out the group is a gaggle of scientists, whose voyage Randa is tagging along for.
Once on the island, things immediately go sideways. Turns out Brooks was sought out by MONARCH due to a “hollow earth” paper he wrote. To test his theories, seismic bombs are dropped, obliterating wildlife in the process. This in return calls out Kong to deal with the squadron of helicopters and leads to the film’s most visceral and stunning set-piece.
With the squad’s numbers decimated thanks to Kong, the vast majority of the movie sees the survivors race against the clock to an extraction zone.
Here, in the midst of chaos, on an island surrounded by perpetual storm, the tone changes abruptly, with the introduction of a new character: Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). As played by Reilly, Marlow is a manic man unstuck in time. The majority of his life has been with the villagers of Skull Island, who speak nary a word. They’re also some of the few characters who see an improvement here, far from the shrieking and savage portrayals of decades past. Marlow’s dual nature of comic relief and exposition dump help to shine a light on the film’s constant push and pull. It wants to be movie that cribs from Vietnam, exposing a message of environmental conservation, yet also be able to senselessly kill everything that appears on screen, as long as it’s undercut by a joke.
Having such a talented cast at their disposal, it would be easy to imagine most any director bringing out the best in everyone. Here though, it falls flat, as most are trying simply to do the most with what’s available. Goodman is engaging, but one-note. Hawkins plays “nerd” in name only. The squad of soldiers have the most minor of personalities, existing only to sacrifice themselves, or cry out in anguish when their comrades are doing the sacrificing. Larson is certainly no damsel in distress, given a character that feels strong and determined, yet essentially nonexistent (save for a “hero shot” that arrives out of left field). Her relationship with Kong gets scaled back, coming off more as a tender momentary exchange, than outright infatuation.
Which brings us to Jackson’s Col. Packard; the antagonist of the film, who sees himself as the ostensible hero, Packard is the key to how audiences will connect with what they see on screen. Packard’s first appearance has him wondering what the point of Vietnam was all about, if the USA is withdrawing so suddenly. He is looking for one more mission to redeem himself before he goes home. The mission he finds himself on is voluntary, putting the lives of his men in harms way. When death does come, he’s never forced to answer for his part in things. He knows a battle with Kong may seem impossible, but that it must be seen through, specially after his last go round “We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it”. Like a cross between Don Quixote and Col. Kurtz, he lunges headfirst into battle, entirely sure that his way, is the only way to get things done.
The humans though, are usually mere window dressing, when it comes to the tale of a giant primate. Kong never disappointed ends up as a testament not only to the current level of animation, but also the advancements made in motion capture. Terry Notary, and to a smaller extent Toby Kebbell, deserve special recognition concerning bringing Kong to life. Accompanying the Primate King are a cacophony of bugs, monsters and beasties that inhabit Skull island. None of them last very long, which is a shame, for each instance that they appear or are introduced, the proceedings liven up.
Perhaps the best, but most curious comparison comes in the form of another “summer blockbuster” released oddly early in the year: The Great Wall. One movie has already lost tens of millions of dollars, while the other is primed to sit upon the box office throne for a few weeks. Both films are marred by the same problems though, in that they struggle to make the human characters more compelling than the monsters that dwell in the background. They also have trouble juggling consistent tone, alternating almost scene by scene. Surprisingly, while Skull Island supplies a more sumptuous visual feast, it’s The Great Wall that features better monsters. There we see the inner workings of their mindset and the hierarchy of said creatures, where they exist only as cannon fodder in the other. It may be something small, but speaks to lack of thought that exists in the larger blockbusters.
All this circles back though to the main underlying and essential question: “what do we want in a monster movie?” Is it enough simply to be thrilled by the site of Kong as he plows quickly through other creatures? Should fluff and padding be stripped from such movies in favor of pure spectacle over substance? It’s easy to turn off your mind when watching a film, but to do so with the regularity that most tentpole films is to inspire lazy film making. This isn’t necessarily to say that all blockbusters fall into this trap Kong: Skull Island is the most recent inclusion. While a bright easy watch, filled with grand effects, it’s also a film held back by a lackluster script. Kong should be free to reign supreme, pure and simple, not cower or cater to the whims of little people.