Legendary Pictures marches their MonsterVerse franchise forward with the second entry in the series, coming three years after Godzilla (2014). As a whole, the movie delivers what monster fans have been looking for, with heaps of monster action and great special effects. Despite the impressiveness of the action pieces, though, the movie does stumble a bit when it comes to its characters and its two plot pieces, one of which is infinitely more interesting than the other. Faults and all, though, this is another engaging entry in the new Godzilla continuity.
For the plot, the movie opens in 1944 with an aerial dogfight happening somewhere over the South Pacific. Two planes end up being shot down, one American and one from a Japanese zero pilot. The two pilots then attempt to kill each other on the ground until Kong arrives and interrupts what was otherwise an unnecessary scene. Flash forward to 1973. The Vietnam War is ending and the Monarch organization, heavily featured in Godzilla (2014), is in a dire financial situation. Despite setbacks, though, they are adamant about exploring a newly discovered land mass dubbed Skull Island. Following a quick reference to the nuke incident surrounding Godzilla, who is not mentioned by name, the group manages to convince a senator to green light an expedition. Granted a military escort, the recently inactive Sky Devil squadron is deployed. The island itself is protected by an abnormal weather system, acting like a wall of storms around it. As a result, the ship docks and in a cool scene the squad of helicopters venture into the storm wall. On the other side exists a lush island. The expedition is not as it seems, though. Monarch actually suspects giant creatures of inhabiting it, and has the military release explosives under the guise of seismic surveillance. Their true purpose, though, is to flush the creatures out, and they are successful in doing so. The Sky Devil squad is quickly attacked by Kong, who introduces himself in a cool sequence involving throwing a tree through a helicopter. The assault is vicious, as the giant ape destroys the 20+ helicopter group. The death toll is large as the scattered survivors attempt to regroup on the ground. They need to reach the other side of the island within three days to be rescued at a rendezvous point. The colonel of the Sky Devil squadron, Preston Packard, is harboring a different goal: revenge for his men...
Now I'm a sucker for period piece movies. The sets and costumes for this production are also well done, fitting with the era of the film like a glove. Pacing wise, the movie is also structured well. It speeds through setting up the chess pieces before quickly getting onto the island, where all hell breaks loose and never really relents. As one of the soldiers aptly points out: "this place is hell." The production was more violent than I was anticipating too, with one soldier impaled through the mouth by the Mother Longlegs (a cringe worthy name, thankfully never mentioned in the movie, which is derived from daddy long leg spiders) and another member ripped apart by Psychovultures. The action scenes of the movie also deliver. One of the common complaints of Legendary Pictures' first Godzilla film was that it didn't feature the monsters enough, especially the title character. Kong: Skull Island does a 360 turn, offering up tons of monster sequences from a menagerie of beasts. This movie's climactic battle is also great and inventive in its structure, although does suffer an awkward night time battle beforehand that just seems to... end to get back to the human cast before the real climax starts later.
So fans wanting lots of monster sequences are liable to be pleased. Despite the good handling of the creatures, though, the film does suffer when it comes to its human cast. For much of the movie, the cast is broken into two groups. One is comprised of the leads and Monarch staff with a desire to just get off the island. The other group, mostly comprised of the soldiers, wants off too... except the colonel, who is silently sharpening his grudge with Kong. It's probably no surprise that the soldiers make for the more interesting story, as the troops are torn between just wanting to get home after all they have been through, and loyalty to their colonel.
This division also highlights that the leads are fairly inconsequential. If anyone noticed the lack of reference to Tom Hiddleston's James Conrad and Brie Larson's Mason Weaver in my plot description, it was because they really don't contribute much to the story up until the end when they want to save Kong. The actors try their best, but there just isn't much to work with from how their characters were written. The movie really only halfheartedly tries to build up Conrad too, as we first meet him in Saigon as he cheesily dispatches a few locals. While it tries to make him look like a bad ass, the sequence is awkward and really doesn't amount to much. In terms of Weaver, she is a photographer and anti-war as well. Viewers thinking "oh man, this is gonna lead to some nice tension between her and the soldiers" are in for a disappointment. Past the introduction between her and the colonel, who does accuse photojournalists for costing them the war, this is never really brought up again.
Now the shining star on the character side is actually the colonel, Samuel L. Jackson. His character development far exceeds what the others get, as he is a decorated war hero who is very disappointed in the outcome of the Vietnam War. Looking over his medals, he is caught at a cross road wondering what he does now and what was the point of it all. Presented with the chance to go to Skull Island, the colonel jumps at the opportunity, even thanking the individual who deployed him. It gives him a chance to delay making that hard reflection of what his life has meant while throwing him back to what he knows: managing troops. The fact that he later swears revenge on Kong for over his fallen troop gives some nice conflict to the story, and is a logical character turn. He is a man thirsting for an opportunity to not surrender, to in his mind right the wrong that was the peace agreement that ended the Vietnam War. Kong presents that opportunity, and is realized on screen in a great sequence as the colonel stares down Kong through the fire. The pair lock eyes and cement their rivalry, in what my girlfriend aptly referred to as the "Moby Dick moment of the movie". Unfortunately, the colonel devolves to being mostly a foil for the other characters toward the end of the film. Regardless, he still remains the beacon of light in the cast and the performance by Samuel L. Jackson is the best the movie has to offer.
As is, the movie is simply juggling too many characters. Furthermore, it could have easily condensed the cast. For example, there is no reason why Conrad's role couldn't have been combined with one of the soldiers, especially as his "tracking" never really comes into play nor does he being a "neutral" player. Furthermore, it would have been more interesting if a soldier felt sympathetic for Kong amidst the destruction he did cause to their ranks. The same could be said for Weaver's role, and it's illogical why Monarch or the military would allow a photojournalist on the secret mission in the first place. Instead, her role easily could have been combined with Tian Jing's San, who as a biologist working for Monarch does belong on the mission. Speaking of, the San character is really wasted in the current movie. She has ample screen time, but little in the way of lines, although that is likely attributed to her lackluster line delivery in English. However, the movie has to appeal to the gigantic Chinese box office, and so she is thrust at the camera over and over again with a role that could basically be summed up as window dressing.
That all said about juggling characters, it is important to humanize the casualties. When a nameless soldier is killed in a movie, the impact to the audience is minimal. When someone given a name and a mild backstory is killed, the reaction is amplified. As a result, this does excuse some of the large cast issues. A few do rise to the occasion as well, such as soldier Earl Cole with a great performance by Shea Whigham. While some of the humor around his character, and the soldiers in general, falls flat, they are still developed enough where a few deaths do stand out. Speaking of the humor, the film is more of a miss than a hit here. The star on this side is actually the bobble head Nixon, getting a few laughs. John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow is the other bright spot, getting a great sequence where he is told of all the things he has missed in the almost 30 years he has been stuck on the island. It's the type of scene that really needs a comedic actor to hit the note perfectly, and Reilly does it admirably. Comedy is hard, though, and while the Marvel films like Doctor Strange might make it seem easy, this production does highlight that it's not always simple to just infuse comedy in an action movie.
Now while this is starting to become a longer review than anticipated, I do feel it's worth highlighting the special effects. With a budget $25 million higher than their first Godzilla film, the movie does offer many effect sequences. While there are a few bad effects, such as the CGI deer, there are also many incredible ones. A lot of attention to detail went into creating Kong, and the effort was worth it. The scene where he is drinking water before fighting the giant Mire Squid is exceptional. The motion capture work done by Toby Kebbell is really spot on as well, commanding both strength while also showing the creature's more primitive side.
As for the music, the score for the movie is done by Henry Jackman. The composer has made a name for himself on the Captain America films, although I still remember him best for his phenomenal X-Men: First Class score . Now while there is nothing in this movie that comes close to touching his Magneto theme from the X-Men prequel, the composer does deliver a rousing score. I have picked up the soundtrack so will comment more in-depth for that review, although in a nut shell the battle music was memorable and its reuse during the end credits was great. The score is also atmospheric when it needs to be, building a bit of tension and aiding the mysterious angle of Skull Island and its inhabitants.
Now, similar to my review of the 2014 Godzilla, I saw the movie in 3D. To be honest, I normally skip paying extra to see movies in 3D, but figured it would bring some added commentary for the review. So to answer the burning question: is the 3D worth it? I would say no. The highlight of the 3D effects was probably the point of view shot from inside one of the helicopters. This is especially great as Kong tumbles the craft, shaking the people inside. Another positive mark on the 3D version is the opening title sequence, although I'm a sucker for suspended text as video plays behind it. The titles themselves are reminiscent of Legendary Pictures' Godzilla film, playing archival footage while the credits roll on top. Like that film, it's a cool sequence and nice to see enhanced. Other subtitles, which are done partially like hand paint, also benefit from this. In general, the added dimension is used to create greater depth of field. This is how I prefer 3D over a lot of effects aimed at popping out, although nothing was too memorable in its execution. A rain sequence earlier in the movie did actually suffer from the 3D, though, looking quite poor. All in all, the 3D version is likely the definitive way to see the movie, even if its not worth the added expense.
Overall, I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island quite a bit, despite some of my complaints. While I don't think it was at the same caliber as Godzilla (2014) or Godzilla Resurgence (2016), it does heap on the monster action way more than either of those films. As a result, it's likely to garner fans who enjoy it far more than the recent Godzilla pictures. One way or another, this is another good entry in the new MonsterVerse series.