I went into Kong: Skull Island completely blind. I had no idea that this movie was in anyway connected to Legendary Pictures’ “Monsterverse”, or the recent Godzilla (2014), nor did I realize such a shared universe even existed before watching this movie. Kong: Skull Island is leaps and bounds ahead of the 2014 Godzilla movie. The film differentiates itself by having relatable characters, an A-List cast, and suitably epic monster battles while also having its titular Monster show up for more than ten minutes of the movie. While I was surprised at how much I liked Kong: Skull Island, the film is not without its flaws, namely a lack of character development and an overabundance of characters and subplots.
The film’s story follows the ailing U.S. government agency, Monarch, which happens to discover the movie’s mysterious eponymous island during the waning days of the Vietnam War in 1973. The head of the agency, William Randa (John Goodman), manages to finagle a way to get on the island with a team of scientists and a military escort, ostensibly to study its geology but really to see what kind of strange and fascinating monsters exist there. The film effortlessly evokes the forbidden wonder of Jurassic Park, describing Skull Island as “a land where God didn’t finish creation,” and “a place where myth and science meet,” setting the stage effectively for the explosive confrontations with gigantic creatures.
Skull Island is an enjoyable movie but has a huge flaw in its script. The film suffers from having too many characters and too many concurrent plot threads. This is probably the result of the script’s creation and production by committee. The film had a $185 million dollar budget and there were likely too many cooks in the kitchen. Thus, the film seems like five different scripts smashed together into one movie, and it's amazing that the film is as cohesive as it is. We’re given the Vietnam era plot, the WWII era plot, the Monarch research plot, and Skull Island’s monster ecosystem, just to name the major components. The extraneous subplots and characters should have been removed, thus giving the ones that remained a tighter focus and extra depth.
Another consequence of the bloated script is the inconsistent tone of the film. Skull Island’s tone fluctuates wildly between black gallows humor, serious dramatic tension, gratuitous epic action, and tragedy, sometimes all within the same scene. You see, the film often wants to poke fun at itself and the premise of giant monsters for a laugh. Yet at other times, the film also wants to draw attention to the seriousness of soldiers dying for nothing, and it can be very jarring shifting between these two premises at times. The film’s sound is suitably bombastic and features a booming score to match the film’s colossal action. The film also boasts a soundtrack that helps set the tone of each particular scene, although most of the songs seem plucked from every Vietnam movie ever made. But that’s ok, it works within the context of the film, and I found myself enjoying the music choices.
The casting of Skull Island is quite good. The film boasts an all-star cast including, but not limited to Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly. Out of all of these stars only Samuel L. Jackson, as Colonel Preston Packard, and John C Reilly, as Hank Marlow, get any real characterization. Colonel Packard features heavily as the secondary antagonist. His motivations are understandable and sympathetic, while Reilly serves double-duty as both an emotional focal point and the film’s comic relief. Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad, a former S.A.S. officer specialized in hunting and tracking, is the closest thing that we get to a protagonist, but he’s mostly bland and static and his character could have easily been combined with Brie Larson’s role as the spunky rebel photographer. However, the film needed some sort of stupid love subplot, I guess. I digress. Other than Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly, Kong himself is the best character in the movie.
Kong is a massive monster who is fiercely protective of his domain. The island’s peaceful inhabitants worship him as a god and he is benevolent, helping peaceful animals and killing dangerous ones. Though most of the scenes feature Kong fighting something, he lumbers around with a weight of responsibility on his shoulders and is characterized as being a lonely and tragic figure. Kong is easily the best part of the film, and his reveal and introduction are suitably epic. The same can be said for every single fight including Kong throughout the film; each fight sequence somehow managing to top the next. The final scene, which I like to call “Kong Unchained,” concludes in an orgy of fantastic violence. One nitpick though is that despite being several stories high and undoubtedly weighing many tons, Kong can walk around the island silently and surprise the human characters with ease.
It's unfortunate that the film has so many superfluous characters. Many characters have only a couple lines, and, as mentioned, several could have easily been combined and thus given greater depth. As it stands in final production, many of the characters are paper thin and wholly unnecessary for the expedition. It’s also odd that this movie is ostensibly a prequel designed to cross over into the Godzilla films that take place in the present day. So why did the executives decide to waste this ensemble A-List talent when they wouldn’t be able to utilize them in the next films? Perhaps this is why the cast was poorly characterized and developed? Unless, of course, the film intends to subscribe to the X-Men school of aging, where despite decades separating the sequels, the characters don’t age a day.
The difference between Skull Island and a film like Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which suffered from many of the same characterization problems, is that in addition to Skull Island being entertaining and engaging, it also manages to hold your interest despite its static cast. What Skull Island does well: its massive, epic, and glorious battles, results from the logical buildup and release of tension. On the other hand, Kingsman’s gratuitous action is compensation for the film’s lackluster, empty story, recycled plot elements, and poor character development. This resulted in a bloated, off-putting disarray despite what should have been an exciting and engaging sequel. Furthermore, Skull Island has an air of originality and its main plot thread is simple, despite its many subplots. The audience understands and cares about what’s happening, and more importantly, why: “Kong, good, evil skull monster, bad.” Skull Island is a mess, but its a novel one, and keeps its runtime down to two hours despite its disorganized script. Kong: Skull Island isn’t perfect, but it’s a monster movie done right and is leagues better than Godzilla (2014). As of December 9, 2017, Kong: Skull Island on HBO GO, give it a watch.
TLDR: Kong: Skull Island is a fun, adventurous romp that features excellent epic monster battles but suffers from an overabundance of subplots and underdeveloped characters. 3.5/5 Stars.
-Edited by Austin Toner