One particular aspect of 2014’s Godzilla reboot that many took issue with was just how long the film took until it got to the climactic kaiju action that everyone was waiting for.
Kong: Skull Island does not have that issue.
Within the film’s first act, we are treated to an extended sequence of Kong swinging, smashing, eating, throwing, and destroying a fleet of attack helicopters as if they were a swarm of mosquitos annoying him. Skull Island understands the reason we watch kaiju movies and wastes no time delivering what we want. Seriously, this movie has some giant monster fights that will instantly be declared as all-timers. While Kong: Skull Island absolutely excels in the action department, its lackluster characters and uneven writing are what hold the film back from truly achieving excellence.
But first, the plot.
The year is 1973, the Vietnam War has just ended, and a previously uncharted island has been discovered. After some deliberate negotiations, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince the U.S. government to launch an expedition to what they dub Skull Island. They enlist the help of an elite tracker named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), the anti war photographer Mason (Brie Larson), and a squadron of soldiers fresh out of Vietnam, led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). After some rough turbulence from an eternal storm that engulfs the island, their helicopter squadron is greeted by a welcome party in the form of King Kong himself, who utterly decimates their fleet and leaves the group separated and stranded in this mysterious land filled with even more horrific monsters. Now they must find a way to survive, regroup, and somehow escape the island.
The film has two main obvious literary influences in the form of Heart of Darkness and Moby Dick, wearing an Apocalypse Now skin for good measure. The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now influences are immediately apparent, with its Vietnam aesthetic, anti-colonialism underlying themes, and general “war is hell” mentality. Hell, two of its main characters, Conrad and Marlowe (John C. Reilly), are named after characters from the book, but their similarities are frankly skin deep.
That’s actually is a perfect way to describe most of the film’s characters: skin deep. While everyone does an admirable job in the acting department (everyone’s performance is solid), the actual characters themselves are completely unremarkable. Hiddleston’s Conrad is a bad ass who is good at everything and that’s about all there is to him. The film hints at some moral ambiguity in his introduction, but that trait is quickly dropped once the film gets going. Larson’s Mason is against the Vietnam War which causes some tension with Packard, but once again, nothing compelling is done with this. However, while the characters are written fairly broadly, they are still enjoyable enough. They are simply forgettable.
The only ones who actually have anything interesting going on with their characters are Marlowe and Packard. After Kong wrecks his crew, Packard embarks on a fruitless journey of revenge, stopping at the nothing to take the monster down. Kong acts as the White Whale to Packard’s Ahab. This creates some palpable tension between Packard and the rest of our heroes, as he doesn’t hesitate to waste other’s lives if it means he is able to finally fell the beast.
Marlowe has been trapped on Skull Island since the end of World War 2 after he and a Japanese fighter pilot become stranded after a dog fight. Marlowe acts as our heroes guide, showing them the do’s and don’ts of surviving on the island. While Marlowe primarily serves as the comedic relief of the film, he does experience a mini character arc that manages some emotional resonance, no matter how cheesy it is.
“Cheesy” is a word that can aptly be applied to the majority of the film. I mean that as a compliment. Like the very best B movies, Kong: Skull Island relishes in its ridiculousness and is never afraid of embracing the insanity of its core concepts. This film features Tom Hiddleston slicing through an army of pterodactyls with a samurai sword in slow motion, Kong using the motor from a boat as a flail, and perhaps the greatest giant monster wrestling match to ever be put to screen. This movie is nothing if not exhilarating.
The CGI work on Kong and the various other monsters that inhabit Skull Island is positively jaw-dropping, boasting glorious detail in perfect view. The action sequences are done marvelously, shown in a wide-angle lens, allowing for a crystal-clear view of the carnage. This isn’t Transformers, rarely does the film ever lose you in its chaos, and when it does, it’s intentional and effective.
Not only is the CGI top notch, but the actual camerawork and cinematography are as well. Kong: Skull Island is a gorgeous film, featuring some really breathtaking shots. A reoccurring motif throughout the film is a character either engulfed by or juxtaposed against a wall flame and its always filmed with serious visual flair. If director Jordan Vogt-Roberts could be commended for one thing, it’s his proficiency at the cinematic language.
Kong: Skull Island, like its Godzilla predecessor, is a flawed, but ultimately fun and enjoyable monster flick. Despite shortcomings in the character department, Kong: Skull Island’s simple story, lightning sense of pacing, and engaging action allow it to exist comfortably in the world of high budget B movies. And for a film focused on giant monsters destroying stuff, maybe that’s all it needs to be.
Now bring on Godzilla vs. King Kong!