The latest entry in the delightful resurgence of “large things punch other large things” movies.
So I guess monster movies are making a comeback: first we had Pacific Rim, then we had the 2014 reboot of everyone’s favorite atomic-breath spewing giant lizard-dinosaur thing with Godzilla, and now we’ve got the Anne Hathaway-starring kaiju komedy Colossal on the horizon. So really, why shouldn’t we reboot King Kong, one of cinema’s most iconic tragic monsters? Welp, there’s no need to ponder that question cos its already happened, and its Kong: Skull Island.
Monster movies, to me, are curious things in that they don’t seem to have to play by the rules that most other kinds of movies do. Really, for a monster movie to work all it really needs is awesome monsters doing awesome things, with everything else (especially the human characters) being at the very least tolerable. So, by that metric, I would almost certainly call Kong: Skull Island a success, as it does indeed have awesome monsters doing awesome things with everything in between being tolerable. Of course, the monsters being the highlight in a monster movie shouldn’t really be a surprise: after all that’s what they’re built around.
Skull Island’s numerous beasties look great and are great to watch in action: obviously the titular Kong looks great up on the screen, but Skull Island also peppers is some really cool and creative monster designs that are implemented in clever and innovative ways. Basically every monster set piece in Skull Island is well executed, and each one is memorable in its own way, with some of Kong’s fights being especially well-shot and fun as all hell to see play out. This is all helped along by some really fantastic cinematography, which gives the entire film this really awesome comic-booky/b movie shlock vibe in a deliberate and charmingly self-aware way, as opposed to the non-deliberate incompetent way of some films.
With that said, however, one thing Skull Island doesn’t have as much success with is really capturing the scale of the monsters. I’m not really sure what it was about the way Skull Island was shot, but I never really felt like I got a very clear or consistent sense of the scale of any of the monsters in Skull Island that lasted beyond an individual scene. I suppose I could chalk it up to the fact that the actual setting of Skull Island, lacking any immediate and obvious reference points for scale for your typical audience, doesn’t make it especially easy to convey scale.
Something else that was a bit of a bugbear throughout was some of the editing decisions. By and large, Skull Island is well put together, but there are a few transitions that, while I saw what they were going for, don’t quite land and just come across as a bit abrupt and odd in execution. Skull Island also has a touch of Suicide Squad-itis with a flurry of period licensed music that is heavily peppered throughout. Now granted, it makes far more sense in Skull Island and is significantly better contextualized than it was Suicide Squad, but it still comes across as a little excessive and perhaps trying a little too hard to inject Skull Island with a more lighter and adventurous tone.
Speaking of tone, much of the trailers for Skull Island seemed to suggest a tone that was rather dreary (bar the bizarre decisions to include jokes in the trailers completely out of their context), but as it turns out, Skull Island actually strikes much more pleasantly balanced tone that is far more light-hearted and fun than most of its trailers would suggest. There are plenty of moments of levity mixed in with the carnage that ensures that Skull Island doesn’t turn into an exhausting slog of a film. Skull Island also has a surprising amount of humor in it, which was definitely welcome. Although with that said, a lot of the attempts at humor didn’t land quite as I imagine was hoped, especially some of the more character-centric jokes and humorous dialogue, most of which fell pretty flat.
Of course, I said up top that a monster movie need only, at least in my book anyway, to have characters that aren’t annoying or insufferable, and for the most part Skull Island accomplishes this with the majority of its cast of characters, though looking back, most of them are painfully thin. When they aren’t defined by one very restrictive characteristic, they are barely defined at all, and what characterization is given sometimes just seems to be ignored by the film’s plot at rather baffling points. And in the case of characters like Jing Tian’s San Lin, they don’t even seem to have any reason to be in the movie at all.
So it’s a testament then to the strength of the performances on offer from the film’s all-star cast that they’re able to make these characters seem less overtly transparent than they really are. Everyone involved manages to give a strong performance: Brie Larson especially seemed to be far more emotionally invested in a movie about a giant monkey clobbering other giant things than might actually be warranted.
The real standouts in Skull Island, however, are Samuel. L. Jackson and John C. Reilly, both of who deliver standout performances off of the back of surprisingly robust and well-realized characters. Samuel. L is usually always good for a fun performance regardless of the role, but combined with a character like Colonel Packard with a strong narrative arc and motivation resulted in a genuinely memorable and compelling character. Major props have to go to John. C. Reilly as well, which seemed like an odd choice going in, but turned out to be the heart and core-driving role of the film. Reilly’s role as stranded WWII pilot Hank Marlow is both highly affable and memorable, and much like Jackson’s role, has a surprisingly strong character arc that alongside Reilly’s performance really elevates it all to memorable territory. While its not anything amazing by any means, it’s a level of craft that is rather welcome given the relative lack of craft in Skull Island’s other characters.
Kong: Skull Island ticks all the boxes to be an entertaining monster movie, with great monsters, awesome fights, and genuinely spectacular visuals. Combined with some strong human characters and performances, Skull Island is tantalizing close to being out-and-out good: but some odd editing and a cast of largely flat, zero-effort characters made decent only through strong performances and an overall hit-or-miss script holds Skull Island back from being truly great.