Ever since The Avengers came on the scene all the big movie companies have been scrambling to create their own shared movie universes and very rarely do they ever take off. However, in today’s case there is an exception and it began with the abysmal 2014 reboot of Godzilla. Filled to the brim with flat characters and a dull story, not to mention very little of the titular monster, Godzilla seemed to forget that monster movies are supposed to be fun even those that want to make a statement and be serious. Still it did manage to accomplish what it set out to do: It successfully kicked off its “monsterverse” which has finally been followed up with Kong: Skull Island. Will this film succeed where its predecessor failed or will it fall into the same pretentious traps?
The story for Kong: Skull Island is perfect in that it doesn’t really have much of a story. Normally a lack of a story would spell doom but it works with Kong because it knows what it is: A big, stupid monster movie and it positively revels in its B-Movie glory. The story is simply a group of researchers and soldiers go to Skull Island to find evidence of monsters and are immediately attacked by the very thing they were looking for. Granted the film isn’t entirely made up of giant monster set pieces, it takes a bit of time to build up to arrival at Skull Island and takes a break when it needs in an attempt to create character development. Initially these were worrisome as they felt similar to how Godzilla would slam on the breaks to focus on the human characters which were its Achilles Heel. Thankfully Kong does not suffer the same fate as the pacing flows at a nice, energetic pace and all the while having a good blend of grim drama and some legitimately effective humor. The scenes with the humor characters, though almost bereft of substance, weren’t dull and periodically had some very memorable and well made moments. There is one interesting aspect this film adds and that is the natives. In the original King Kong and even the remake the natives were feral, violent people shown as being sub-human, in a matter of speaking a pretty racist and xenophobic representation. Here though the natives are kind and peaceful and though primitive have been shown to have achieved enlightenment. It’s a very nice touch. Of course the reason for seeing this film is the giant monsters fighting the military and subsequently one another and there is plenty of that to go around and thanks to the pacing and the occasional break the film doesn’t become tedious and instead remains entertaining from start to finish.
The characters for Kong: Skull Island are mostly one dimensional though memorable
Most of the characters are pretty flat and one dimensional. In fact they’re pretty much stock. Our two main leads James Conrad and Mason Weaver are fine but are just typical heroes. Most of the soldier characters exist purely to be fodder while a small handful have likable personalities that help them be memorable even cause one to worry about their safety, though that’s because of things like being young or being a parent. Some characters had the chance to be more like Bill Randa, lead of the expedition and his associate Houston Brooks but not much is done with them.
The only two characters with any kind of depth or characterization are Preston Packard and Hank Marlow. Packard, the leader of the soldiers, is an interesting character because of his obsession with Kong. His main reasons for wanting to kill Kong are the fact that Kong killed his men and his want of a legitimate victory after being forced to retreat from Vietnam. These aspects do make him an engaging character and despite his foolishness he was immensely sympathetic, not a villain but simply a man who wanted to avenge his men and go home with his head held high saying he won a war.
Hank Marlow, a WWII pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island for twenty eight years, is a good character because he adds an element of humor to the story and along with his connection to the island feels more human than most of the characters. From time to time we learn that he was stranded with a Japanese pilot who is initially his enemy but over time became his friend and though we don’t learn or see much of this it was still something far more interesting then what was happening when the film had to take a break.
Despite the rather flat characters and often times clunky and awkward dialogue the cast does incredibly well
Our leads Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson do well in their roles. Hiddleston is very charismatic and enjoyable as Conrad and Larson gives a fine performance as Weaver.
Samuel L. Jackson gives a particularly strong performance as Packard. Jackson is commanding yet sympathetic, managing to take complete control of any scene he’s in. In fact it all comes so easily to him it’s almost as if he isn’t even trying and yet succeeds at every moment.
John Goodman does well as Randa managing to be quite memorable even if a scene calls for him to do very little.
Of course the real show stealer here is surprisingly John C. Riley. Initially believed to be a bad choice and irritating comic relief Riley instead gives an utterly fantastic performance. Riley is immensely humorous without feeling out of place and has more than enough restraint so as not to exceed his welcome. Not only does he manage to do his humor spot on but manages to do very well in his more serious moments even ones that come off as stilted are done wonderfully.
The supporting cast also does well though can’t stand out as much as the main cast due to not having much to do. However, I must say I really enjoyed the chemistry between Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell. The duo has a great back and forth routine throughout the film that brought laughs whenever they spoke. What makes it work so well, aside from the fact that the two work well together, is Whigham’s blunt performance as opposed to Mitchell’s more lively performance.
The action for Kong: Skull Island is the main attraction of the film
The action scenes are what truly make Kong such an entertaining movie. There are monster fights galore and each and every one is filled with destruction and chaos and each one is filled with such variety that they all manage to be fun and unique. The action is well placed throughout the film only happening when it needs to and goes on for as long as it has to which keeps the energy flowing and prevents tedium. This is what Godzilla was supposed to be, it was supposed to be giant monsters fighting the military and one another. Kong knows what it’s audience paid for and what we wanted to see and it gives us that in spades.
The effects, cinematography, style and music for Kong are all great
The effects for Kong are incredibly well made. The CG, though obvious at times, is good especially when it comes to the monsters. Kong looks good with some very well made details and though not nearly as well made or acted as the Peter Jackson version it still looked and moved well. The creature designs are often very creative especially the antagonistic Skull Crawlers which helps bring the frightful world of Kong to life. When it comes to the cinematography it doesn’t simply apply to the action. Granted the cinematography for the action is excellent but it’s the shots it manages to get. Establishing shots of the island are often beautiful, certain shots such as when the military first encounters Kong are tremendous and add to the sense of wonder and danger and there were some POV shots when characters were shooting which added a sense of energy to some of the action. The overall style of the film works wonderfully as it not only feels like it takes place in the 70’s but rather comes off as a cheesy 70’s monster flick which is exactly what the filmmakers are supposed to get across. There are even some nicely done homage to Apocalypse Now which is both obvious and subtle is overall a good touch. The music also sets the style and tone as well with some great songs to tap along too. Nothing sets the tone to a monster film like Bad Moon Rising.
Final Thoughts: Kong Skull Island is all style and very little substance. This is a very good thing and exactly what it should be. Kong knows fully what it is and does not strive to be as good as the original King Kong or the remake. Instead it just wants to be a fun monster movie and with great action set pieces, good acting and some great effects, cinematography and music it manages to be what it wants: A fun, dumb monster film for a lazy Saturday afternoon.