King Kong has always had a major problem: there’s only one good movie. My apologies to fans of the following, but the 1976 King Kong was boring, clichéd, and took out all of the fantasy adventure from the tale and made it a drudge. Aside from some good suitmation, there wasn’t anything going for it. Furthermore, Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong is just a horrible movie even if you watch it without any prior context of Kong himself. Other movies like King Kong Lives and Kong King of Atlantis were jokes. Quite simply nothing could live up to the gold standard of the 1933 classic. So does Kong: Skull Island break this trend? Well…
We open with a truly awful action scene during World War II, when two planes crash land on Skull Island, and the pilots start duking it out. Suddenly King Kong shows up, and is like “Whoa guys, no need to get violent! We can talk this out! ;D”
This opening was just really awkward. It was poorly shot, with stupid camera angles, and unbelievable action feats. For example, one guy shoots at the other guy, who’s standing still in the open, and misses until his gun runs out of bullets! Even worse, they play it straight! During this scene, I thought: “Oh god, it’s not Godzilla 2014, it’s a whole new type of horrible!”*
Anyway, we then cut to the opening credits of GODZILLA (1998)... AGAIN. I mean, it was weird enough when they showed up in Godzilla (2014), but what on earth are they doing here? I don’t mind, I actually loved the opening credits of the 1998 Godzilla film… although I will say it worked better in both of the earlier American Godzilla movies. The music just wasn’t as interesting here, and there was too much narration.
Alright, so here’s the skinny of the plot/set-up. It’s the 70’s, and MONARCH (remember them from the 2014 Godzilla movie?) are running out of funding, and they want to launch an expedition to Skull Island. So they bug some politicians, and get a military unit, led by Samuel L. Jackson as a colonel Preston Packard, leaving Vietnam to fly them out before heading home. They also hire a tracker dude (Tom Hiddleston's James Conrad), and photographer chick (Brie Larson's Mason Weaver) comes along for some reason.
That’s the set-up/skinny/low-down. So consider everything ahead SPOILERS, BABY!!!
So, our happy band of humans fly through the eye of a storm surrounding Skull Island, and we get a really stupid monologue from Samuel L. Jackson, ruining an otherwise tense helicopter flight (I should also mention they dropped a Jurassic Park reference as they were taking off, and had him say “Hold on to your butts”).
They then proceed to start dropping bombs (excuse me, scientific instruments) to map out the island more clearly. Suddenly, King Kong shows up, and sh!t when hits the fan. Or should I say, a tree hits the chopper blades? #COMEDY. All the helicopters are taken down by Kong, and this is really where the movie begins.
All of the choppers went down in different locations, separating the characters. Luckily, a plot McGuffin is coming to the north side of the island in three days, so they can escape! From this point, we’ll basically have two groups of characters, Samuel L. Jackson’s, and Tracker Dude’s.
A lot of troops died in the helicopter crashes, pissing off Samuel L. Jackson, who then decides that he needs to get revenge on Kong. Some military dude (Jack Chapman's Toby Kebbell) is still missing, and his group prioritizes finding him. Tracker Dude on the other hand just focuses on getting to the north side of the island.
The next part of the movie basically just shows the bizarre misadventures of each group, as we see more of Skull Islands’ fauna, and some more Kong scenes. Most notably, we have a scene of Kong fighting a giant octopus, a clear reference to King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). The movie continues like this, until Tracker Dude’s group meets the Skull Islanders, who also have an old weird Santa guy with them (the movie’s words, not mine). He was one of the World War II pilots we saw in that opening, and he’s been here ever since then. He explains that Kong is the god of the island to the natives because he fights giant lizards called Skull Crawlers. The former pilot also has a boat that can get them to the north side of the island in time.
...And O Lucky Day! They make radio contact with Samuel L. Jackson’s group, and the two rendezvous. Unfortunately, Samuel L. Jackson’s group still want to find their lost man, and convince the others to help them. They go to the east part of the island, and discover the burial ground of Kong’s ancestors. Supposedly, they were killed by a big Skull Crawler, and Kong is the last of his kind. However, there are too many characters in the party, and the scene soon turns into another one of the film's AWFUL sequences, this time being a fight with some Skull Crawlers. During this scene, the movie decides it really wants to be the matrix, using a lot of slowmo gun action. Also, one of the Skull Crawlers conveniently barfs up the missing guy’s dog tags.
They escape the burial ground set, and show Samuel L. Jackson's colonel the tags. The colonel decides that it doesn’t matter, ‘cuz he’s the villain dammit, and he needs to kill Kong. Tracker Dude takes his group (sans their military kid, who goes with Samuel L. Jackson) back towards the boat. They start leaving, but Tracker Dude, Santa Guy, and Photographer Girl decide they need to save Kong, and go to intercept the colonel.
The colonel, however, set up a trap with napalm, and knocks Kong out (after Kong takes out a guy in a blue shirt). Jackson is about to blow him sky high, when our heroes show up, and we have a little standoff. Luckily, the Military Kid that was with Tracker Dude has a change of heart, and sides with the good guys. Samuel L. Jackson tries to blow his explosives anyway, and gets crushed by Kong. Also, his closing lines are “Die motherfu-“ because this movie blew its PG-13 F-bomb on an ant.
However, there was enough boom-boom to wake up the giant Skull Crawler that killed Kong’s family. There’s a colossal fossil feud that I can’t do justice in text, so consider this me not spoiling it for you.
After that, everyone GETS TO THE CHOPPA! Santa guy meets his son, and we pimp Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah for Godzila: King of the Monsters.
So in case it wasn’t clear, I have somewhat mixed feelings on this movie. However, I can say that overall, I enjoyed it. It has a lot of good things going for it, none the least of which was the acting. Unlike a certain movie from 2014*, the acting is pretty damn good across the board. Samuel L. Jackson makes a great villain as Col. Packard, and we have shining performances from John Goodman as Randa, Jason Mitchel as Mills, and John C. Reilly as Marlow. But really that’s just the tip of the iceberg, every character in this movie had something going for them, largely due to their performances.
The special effects in this movie are also great. Kong himself looks amazing, and has such expression that he really feels like he’s there, despite being CGI. This stuff is LEAGUES ahead of Peter Jackson’s 2005 ice skating “realistic” gorilla, and even Godzilla (2014). This is more on par with Jurassic Park, or Pacific Rim.
For the music, I liked the soundtrack. The actual score is a little on the bland side, but it makes up for it with some great licensed songs. As far as I can tell, it all fits into the time period the film takes place in as well. The tone of the music always fits into the scene, and the timing is always right, but the lyrics are a bit off sometimes. And I’m sorry, but “Bad Moon Rising” belongs in An American Werewolf in London, not here. Back to the original soundtrack though, I must admit that I can ALMOST hum the main theme, so kudos there.
But what this movie’s greatest strength is, is its tone. It has a great setting, and uses it to its full advantage. That setting… sure isn’t Skull Island. This movie’s island looks way more like Faro Island than any rendition of Skull Island. Another plus, the movie isn’t so far up its own ass that it thinks it shouldn’t have a sense of humor.* There are some moments in this film that got a good chuckle out of me in the theater. Furthermore, I love how much violence they crammed into their PG-13 movie. They definitely pushed their rating to its limit, and we get some pretty brutal kills, both human AND monster. Furthermore, throughout the movie it’s clear that nobody has plot armor. For example, Missing Military Meat-Head Jack (played by Toby Kebbell) just wants to get home to see his little boy Billy… TOO BAD HE DIES! In any other movie having a kid would give him instant plot armor, but not here. Bravo for keeping things tense!
Just as a side note, this movie is kinda anti-military. Our “good guys” are led by a civilian, and their military party member is a slightly bumbling comic relief kid who turns on his commanding officer. Whereas our “bad guys” are a highly militarized group working under Col. Packard as usual, and the military characters don’t become “good” until they turn on their officer as well. I’m not sure if these themes were to reflect the nature of the times this movie takes place in, or if the writers truly feel that way, but MY OH MY IS IT WELCOME. Especially compared to a certain other movie that was constantly jerking off to the military, and making them look like total idiots in the process.* Here, despite being villainized, the military look ten times more competent, and like they would actually do things to strategically viable in combat.
However, this movie isn’t even close to perfect. As I mentioned in my plot summary, there are a few scenes that are awkwardly shot, out of place, and all-around rather grating. The writing is a huge step up from Godzilla (2014), but that isn’t saying much. This “MonsterVerse,” as some are calling it, seems to have a problem with old men. The movie sets up John Goodman’s character as the main character in the opening, only to have him unceremoniously killed with no resolution to his character on Skull Island. Kinda sounds like another movie doesn’t it?*
Furthermore, I have a few issues with the after credits scene. It opens with some characters being interrogated by some of the other characters, and are shown a slideshow depicting Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah on cave paintings. Now, Mothra’s fine. She’s always been worshipped by the natives of Infant Island, so it’s fine to have her on cave paintings. But Godzilla was always something I considered to be a “modern” monster. Same to a lesser extent on Rodan. Not to mention Ghidorah’s a freakin’ space monster! …Well, most of the time. If he’s treated more like he was in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), I guess I’d be okay with that. It also ends with a smash cut to Godzilla’s 2014 roar. Total fan service, but I must admit I loved hearing it.
Overall, I can easily recommend Kong: Skull Island. At the end of the day, it was a fun, entertaining movie with a few noticeable flaws. Furthermore, I believe I can actually call it the only other good Kong movie. However, does it live up to the original? No. Not even close. But unlike another movie in the same universe,* this movie knows that it isn’t the original, and doesn’t pretend to be. It doesn’t have a deep message, nor is it meant to. That was biggest improvement from Godzilla (2014). It doesn’t piss on the original. The question now is, will we ever get a movie that lives up to the ’33 classic? I think we will, but it won’t be in this series.
Last year, Toho made Godzilla Resurgence (2016). Even though I love so many Godzilla movies, some of which more than the original, I don’t think any can be called better than the original in serious film circles. However, for the first time in 60 years, we had a film that lived up to the 1954 masterpiece in every way, and was a serious film with masterful cinematography, brilliant action, and a deep message about Japan much like the original. Kong will be the same. Just wait.
This movie though? Not even light years within the original. But unlike Godzilla (2014), that’s okay. Because unlike that movie, people won’t THINK it is.
*A brief review of Godzilla (2014): It’s shit.