Monster movies have been more hits than misses lately, with studios seeing the growing potential and interest of a once-thought-to-be-extinct sub-genre in cinema that only strived due to the B-grade Japanese Godzilla films. While the poor American attempts didn’t go unnoticed (I’m looking at you, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla), Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim put monster movies back in the mainstream spotlight and proved that they can be compelling pieces of visual entertainment at its finest. Kong: Skull Island attempts to follow in the same footsteps, but does it leave as big of an imprint as its mighty predecessors?
Set in 1973 shortly after the Vietnam war, Kong: Skull Island is mostly a retelling of the origins of cinema’s favorite giant ape. After an expedition to the uncharted Skull Island leaves a team of ‘Nam soldiers and civilians trapped, they’re forced to use their wits and survive the uncanny nature of the islands’ monstrous inhabitants, including a god-like colossal ape named Kong. The film primarily focuses on the humans caught in the middle of an ancient conflict involving Kong and a few bloodthirsty creatures called skullcrawlers.
I was reluctant going into Kong: Skull Island. I kept my expectations mostly in-check, but expected a decent, thrilling monster movie with great action. On that note, the movie delivered and beyond. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts breathes some incredible new life and vision into the legendary beast, doubling up on his original size to an astonishingly massive 100 feet. When Kong is on screen, the size is definitely felt and left me breathless at how Vogt-Roberts was about to capture the scale of the island’s creatures so spectacularly. The film is also relentlessly paced once you get over the initial 30 minutes of character set-up. From the moment the characters enter Skull Island, it’s an absolute blast of fun.
The action sequences are masterfully handled, capturing the scale and ferocity of the monsters’ battles while keeping the camera mostly fixed to a ground point of view. This kept the fights always mesmerizing and other-worldly, and when Kong throws down, it’s a superb monster royal rumble that pays homage to the kaiju monster movies of the past while giving its own modern visual spin to it. What really sets Kong: Skull Island apart from the others is its setting and underlying themes of war. Basing the film just off the heels of the Vietnam war was a clever move as it added a much needed weight to the film that kept it grounded in reality, making the appearance of the monsters all the more incredible.
However, the film stumbles in its characters, or lack thereof. Where 2014’s Godzilla had Bryan Cranston’s brilliant emotional performance to give the film a human element, Kong: Skull Island features none of that, keeping its characters more in line with talking, expository drones than actual fleshed out people. The only standouts here are Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a typical badass war general hellbent on killing Kong, and John C. Reilly, a pilot who crashed on Skull Island and has been there for a while. Surprisingly, Reilly was the best written and most developed character of the entire film, giving a believable backstory to him that paid off in the end. This is where all semblance of emotional catharsis ends, though, as the film crams big-named stars in important roles without ever capitalizing on their potential.
Tom Hiddleston plays the stereotypical heroic type that always has a serious face, while Brie Larson (who is absolutely gorgeous) plays a photographer who also fills the quota for a blonde girl in a King Kong movie. That’s as much character as the movie gets, leaving its unfortunate set of side characters as canned food for the skullcrawlers. However, the film manages to give the characters just enough development to keep us mostly invested, knowing full well that the real reason we’re here is for Kong and good ol’ monster smackdowns, and in that sense, the film does its job well.
Verdict: Kong: Skull Island may not be as well-structured as 2014’s Godzilla, but it is an impressive visual marvel packed to the brim with jaw-dropping action sequences and fast pacing so the film never feels longer than it should (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson’s King Kong). While the characters aren’t very fleshed out, they’re serviceable enough to keep us moving from one exhilarating fight scene to the next. Don’t expect a masterpiece, but you’ll find plenty of enjoyment in this big monster movie worthy of Kong.