SPOILERS ALERT: This review will contain specifics about the movie's plot, not that there's much to spoil to begin with.
Kong: Skull Island is a re-imagining of the classic tale of King Kong, a time-proven story about a beauty and a beast (we'll get to the other one soon). But beyond that, it is also the second movie in Warner Bros' yet another ambitiously planned "shared cinematic universe project" - the Monsterverse - which began with 2014's problematic but ultimately solid Godzilla. Not to be confused with Universal's planned Monsterverse with Dracula and his pals. Are we at a point for cinematic universe trademark war already?
Back to the monkey business! Kong: Skull Island, praise humanity, is not another remake of the original story. Peter Jackson's King Kong is only 12 years old, and at least for me personally, it was a masterpiece. It did to me what I presume the 1933 original did for generations. Come Skull Island, I expected a not-as-good story compared with the original, better human characters than Godzilla, and way more monster action than Godzilla.
And what do you know? That's more or less what I got.
Kong: Skull Island takes us back to 1973, more relevantly, the end of Vietnam War. An assortment of characters, played by the movie's very impressive ensemble cast, decided that a protracted warfare obviously wasn't exciting enough, let's go explore this mythical island surrounded by a perpetual storm. What could possibly go wrong?
Compliments to up-and-coming director Vogt-Roberts, whose previous indie work proved successful enough to land him this job but I don't claim to be familiar with, although the movie largely takes place on the titular island, populated by monsters, strange creatures and surprisingly polite aborigines, being in and of itself a place beyond time, he still managed to bring home that 70s vibe.
And MAN is it amazing to hear "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath (who recently disbanded, unfortunately) and "Ziggy Stardust" by David Bowie (rest in peace) in theatre-quality surround sound. And if Star Wars gets an Apocalypse Now sunset homage shot, it's obligated for Kong: Skull Island to throw in a few helicopter silhouettes, only this time, they were joined by a massive ape.
In terms of scale, this is not the Kong that we used to be associated with. This Kong doesn't wrestle with dinosaurs, it would simply stomp on them. This Kong cannot climb the Empire State Building without bringing the whole thing to the ground. And nope, this Kong will not be put down by puny, feeble and pathetic firepower from a helicopter squadron, as is clearly demonstrated by the crew's first encounter with the beast.
In a sense of poetic justice, Kong completely rained hell down upon those helicopters, and it was a sight to behold! Bear in mind that in the 1976 remake, which is the closest rendition with this movie in terms of time period, Kong was killed not by old-time fighters, but helicopters. Thus a sense of sweet satisfaction to see a much larger and stronger Kong tear down those ignorant invaders as if saying: not this time, bi***es!!
And here's where the movie truly shines: monster action! Contrary to Godzilla (2014) who constantly shied away from what the audiences came for (surely at some point even they would realize that), Kong: Skull Island delivers top-notch, exhilarating men vs beast and beast vs beast actions, be it Kong, a giant octopus, Skull-crawlers or a giant spider.
Skull Island has never felt more real yet unreal at the same time. There is a dynamic and believable ecosystem established solely for this place, a natural balance threatened by our human characters. The island felt like an open world map of a Far Cry game, where we could explore and interact as we please. If you've played any of those games, you'd know it's a compliment.
However, its mythical inhabitants are also more detached from reality than previous incarnations. Many of them are not ancient species that Father Time forgot to erase, but something new altogether, occasionally even carrying a sense of majesty and divinity, which should come as little surprise since director Vogt-Roberts admitted that one of the major design inspirations was Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke.
To put it this way, every second involving a fantasy creature on screen speaks efforts from the creative team. And to the movie's major credit, creature encounter takes up at least half of the movie's running time, unlike that Aaron Taylor-Johnson movie featuring Godzilla only when it absolutely can't get around it. Now, let's talk about the other half of the movie.
The human characters are almost inevitably on the weaker side of a story like this, and to a degree, that might not be a terrible thing. Does anyone seriously want to hear me say: oh that Chris Pine really stole the whole show in this Kong vs Godzilla vs King Ghidorah mash-up movie? (Be noted that it is only a joke, far as I know, no such movie is rumored and Chris Pine is in no way related to this franchise.)
That doesn't mean we cannot have relatable, memorable human characters in a monster movie. Bryan Cranston in Godzilla was a perfect example of carrying someone else's movie with style, owing to a compelling backstory and superb acting, for as long as he was alive anyway. Of course, we can also date back to Ann Darrow and Carl Denham from the old King Kong stories.
Kong: Skull Island appeared to have taken a step in the right direction by hiring an ensemble cast of unmeasurable talent that happened to include Loki, Nick Fury and Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, the cast is pretty thoroughly wasted. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are given exactly zero material to leave their mark upon. By the time the credits get rolling, we still have no idea who they are beyond that he is a tracker and she a photographer. But even that is stretched because he didn't do much tracking, nor did she do a lot photographing.
For a moment, we were led to believe that John Goodman's character is the Carl Denham of this version. He was the orchestrator of this ill-fated endeavour and one of the very few who actually wanted to be here. But through some clumsy character allocation, he became the exposition guy for the first half an hour, then disappeared until he was killed off halfway.
The only two "real" characters belonged to Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly. Jackson plays a veteran colonel still bitter about the outcome of the Vietnam War, consequently he saw Kong as another chance for victory even if the war existed only in his mind. Despite blaming Kong for murdering his troops and going to great lengths to locate that one missing soldier, in the end, it was clear that the obsession of conquering Kong drove him into madness, to the point that he no longer cared how many lives might be lost for his personal satisfaction.
John C. Reilly plays the only character with a sense of humor, despite having been stranded on this island for 28 year (now that's positivity). Contrary to what the trailers would have you believe, he is not simply the comic relief, but also a voice of reason, and thus the most relatable and likable for the audiences. Not that these two characters work at all times, but at least by the end we knew who they were and understood (somewhat) their motivations.
One has to question, though, how much of that likability stem from intelligent scriptwriting or the actors' inherent charm, because there were definitely less-than-refined moments. For example, in the introduction scene of Jackson's character, during an entirely unrelated conversation, he randomly decided to take some time to contemplate on a box of medals he earned, and even whispered (very out loud) to himself: "What are all these for?" Wow! That's real subtle! Whatever happened to "show don't tell"? While it does allow us to glimpse on his mentality, it's done in the most perplexingly out-of-place manner.
Even Kong is less of a character than his previous versions. Ironically, this time we got to know more about Kong than ever before. He is King of Skull Island, protector of its natural balance and innocent lives, also an orphan. But once again, "show don't tell". All these information we got from dialogue-based expositions. With the old Kong, we didn't really know his position on the island, and how the "sacrificial ritual" thing came to be, but the myth added so much to the fascination that we already developed due to its very existence. Why did he spare Ann and actually cared for her? Why did he climb the Empire State Building? Was it instinctive nature to be on the highest ground in sight or was it a conscious choice of his own kingly demise?
While the new Kong doesn't even begin to scratch such depth or invite any meaningful questions, one could argue that fits the tone of this movie, and consequently better for the upcoming collaborative features. The old Kong movies being monster-themed drama, Kong: Skull Island is a pure and simple monster flick, and it works when it understands that.
One of the downers of Godzilla (2014) was being way too serious and joyless even after it ditched the nuclear metaphor of the original. On that note, Skull Island seems to be on its way to rectify that problem, by presenting itself as something that is in essential: fun. Compared with King Kong (2005), it feels more akin to Destroy All Monsters (1968), which, considering the stupid fun that this franchise is promising, could only be a good thing.
Kong: Skull Island serves its purpose well. It provided stellar monster bashing action and adds much mythology to the shared universe that is still coming together. However, there're simply more human characters than required for such material, most of which fall flat or serve little purpose other than dragging out the non-action half of the movie which felt longer than it really was. Imagine instead of the five Inside Out emotions, you get Excited and Bored in your brain control center, and they decide to do shifts. That's how it feels to watch this mixbag.
Not that ratings matter, but here we go: 6/10.
This is the section where I talk about teeny-tiny little things about the film that don't prominently impact my overall impression, but are still worth mentioning, just for the heck of it:
- Can we agree the opening scene is AWESOME?
- Samuel L. Jackson rage-stares Kong shot is pretty clearly green screen effect, but I'll let it slide because it's Samuel Moth*****ing Jackson, as long as he's real, we good.
- Gotta have some obligatory "shitty Mom" talk cuz MILITARY! MACHO! Even though they end up more like excerpts from Youtube comment section than anything post-war brethren would say, or any real human beings for that matter.
- Also nobody remembers any military dude other than Sam L., and frankly no one cares, so that subplot about that one trooper writing to his kid feels desperate, almost forcing viewers to notice these obvious red-shirts.
- Were you wondering why there was a Chinese biologist hanging in the background all along, other than Chinese market pandering? She was basically that one guy/girl in your group project who attend every meeting but contribute absolutely nothing. In fact, the actress Jing Tian's very existence is a big controversy in China that threatens to overshadow the movie itself. I don't do gossips, but there's no denying that her relationship with the directorship of Wanda, the company which purchased Legendary Entertainment, more so than her talents, would ensure her future appearances in these blockbusters (starting with Pacific Rim 2). I was concerned but also admittedly curious about her performance, but there really was no room for her to be good or bad in.
- The Alpha Skullcrawler that the movie's been building up to wasn't as big and intimidating as we thought, was it? Not sure I buy that it wiped out Kong's whole family.
- Even this very detached version of Kong has to save the girl from other monsters, at least for once. Also that scene where Kong's arms gets tangled by chains. *wink wink*
- The aborigines are pretty talented artists, that cross-plane parallax wall painting must have been a son of a bi*** to make. One stroke wrong and you'll have to start over at another cave, I do wanna see the "drafts".
- Would've been nice to see Kong visit his parents' grave, or his reaction when the place was lit up. Missed opportunity for some much needed character moments.
- Kong is still growing, so he'll be bigger in the Godzilla vs Kong movie? Well he gotta be, despite being an enhanced version, he still can't hold a candle against the lizard's atomic breath. Notice how he still flinches against bullets? Got some grinding/farming/leveling up to do for the next 40+ years before boss battle, talk about hardcore!
- The after-credits scene doesn't make much sense. Why show these people all these info when the purpose of the meeting is to forbid them to leak out info?! It's also this universe's equivalent to Wonder Woman opening emails. But who cares? I got chills all the way! Tell me I'm not the only one!!