New rule: anyone who was in line opening day for the King Kong reboot Kong: Skull Island hereby relinquishes all rights to complain about too-soon Spider-Man reboots. Peter Jackson’s 2005 cover of the original Kong isn’t dead and buried yet. The return on its $250 million investment wasn’t as robust as the studio would’ve hoped, but considering its Tomatometer rating tops Skull Island‘s (84% vs. 78%), I wouldn’t call it a failure that needed to be erased — unlike, say, Spider-Man 3.
Short version for the unfamiliar: In 1973 as the U.S. calls off the Vietnam War, a team of ostensible geologists recruits a few random freelancers and some requisite military escorts to help them explore a mysterious Pacific island cut off from civilization. There are exotic monsters and tribes who don’t speak English and a giant ape. Hurtful things happen. Within minutes of arrival the mission parameters change from “science pioneering” to “get off the island”.
That’s your framework for two hours of Monsters Fighting. Not much else is added except a mild twist: the mountain-sized ape who demolishes all their helicopters and roars a lot is the good guy.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Heading up Team Quote-Unquote “Geology” are the talents of the great John Goodman and his sidekick Corey Hawkins (Walking Dead, 24 Legacy, Straight Outta Compton‘s Dr. Dre). However, the camera angles suggest the main character is Tom Hiddleston (Loki!) as an ex-military tracking guy who’s supposed to help them find stuff. Academy Award Winner Brie Larson (for Room, and someday to play Marvel’s Captain Marvel) is a self-described “antiwar photographer” who’s there to take pictures, facilitate the mandatory “Beauty and the Beast” scene, and make sure there’s at least one English-speaking woman in the film.
Overseeing their military ride-along unit is Samuel L. Jackson as an officer disappointed in the Vietnam evacuation and itching to stay in the game. His men include Shea Whigham (Agent Carter‘s season-1 boss), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton‘s Eazy-E), and Toby Kebbell, last seen trying to survive Fantastic Four, dallying in a southern accent.
Trapped between both worlds is Marc Evan Jackson, best known in our household as Dr. Saperstein’s droll lawyer from Parks & Rec, whose sole purpose seems to be comic relief despite a glaring lack of lines. Usurping that position is John C. Reilly as a long-lost WWII pilot marooned in 1945 and disconnected from the Western world except through treasured memories of his wife and the Chicago Cubs.
Special shout-out goes to Kong’s mo-cap representatives, Planet of the Apes veterans Terry Notary and the aforementioned moonlighting Mr. Kebbell.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? MONSTERS FIGHT. THEY FIGHT. AND FIGHT. AND FIGHT AND FIGHT AND FIGHT. FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. THE KING KONG AND MONSTERS SHOW!
Buried behind the explosions and animal rampages are competing messages about war and its warriors. America is relieved to be ditching Vietnam, but old soldiers like Jackson don’t take kindly to being ordered to give up. As the long walk to freedom racks up mileage, Jackson’s authority pose gives way to a deteriorating riff on every bitter warmonger antagonist ever. His mission is no longer about survival, protection, or patriotism, but about macho revenge.
And yet, on the other side is Kong, a one-ape army unto himself. After a disastrous first round that starts the casualty counter ticking early, we learn Kong isn’t a wandering animal destroying everything in sight — he’s the island’s number one defender. Without him, all the other monsters lurking in the trees would run roughshod over its more benign inhabitants and turn into a darker Jurassic Park. Skull Island needs its singular-monkey military.
Nitpicking? I’ll say this against Peter Jackson’s Kong: three hours for a monster movie was excessive. The filmmakers behind this new version, including director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, took that fault to heart and did everything in their power to serve up a leaner two-hour runtime. First on the screenplay chopping block, I’m guessing, was 90% of the scenes that didn’t have monsters in them. The familiar cast is there to serve as monster tackle dummies rather than as characters. Individual motivations are at a premium; connections between them are flimsy to nonexistent. Hiddleston himself, treated by the cameras as Our Hero, leads and lives with no arc to speak of, coasting on the good-will assumption that Loki will save us all, eschewing the complications and nuance that made The Night Manager a much more engaging showcase for his skills.
Even the film doesn’t think much of its own population. For the sake of shocking and surprising the audience, the customary monster-movie deaths come at us so quickly and unexpectedly that they mean nothing and have zero seconds set aside for anyone to have a complete reaction (us or them) to the occasional carnage. Part of that’s in the frenetic editing too eager to rush to the “good parts”, but part of that is because no one mourns for hollow placeholders.
If you look to movies as escapism from headline news, you may or may not be irritated at the first spoken line after the prologue. As two characters pull into a Washington DC overrun with civil rights protestors and clichéd hippies, one remarks to the other, “Mark my words — there will never be a weirder time in Washington.” The implied wink to the audience is so unsubtle, it can be viewed from Mars.
So what’s to like? Extravagant love and care were invested in the Monsters Fight scenes, fully realized and packed with ideas for super awesome monster fight moves. Kong himself is rather intelligent, wielding the larger objects around him like clubs or maces or or spears. His fiercest opponents, half-formed mega-dinosaurs that are more mouth than body, surely underwent a long, thoughtful development process to make them suitably otherworldly, menacing, and just sinewy enough to jump-scare out of nowhere at will. When their altercations aren’t choppily stitched together like a disappointing martial arts TV show, they’re filmed in worshipful One Perfect Shot slow motion and artful cinematography overtly influenced by and enraptured with Apocalypse Now, taking cues in composition and color if not quite achieving Coppola’s clarity or purpose.
If all you want from a film about monster fights is monster fights, Skull Island is an ideal two-hour getaway. If you believe a filmmaker need more than a scant handful of well-executed scenes to make a great movie, the humans will dash your hopes against Skull Island’s rocks and boneyards. A few of the performers try to carve out tiny showcase spaces — Reilly rules the screen with wild-eyed whimsy and some odd Japanese sword action; Whigham packs as much off-kilter brio as he can into the few sentences he’s afforded; and fans of Actual Acting will enjoy the confrontational conversation between John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson, two old pros going at each other with gusto but without histrionics.
But yeah, the phrases “popcorn film” and “paycheck roles” are in full effect here on Skull Island. I’d be a lot happier if Hiddleston and Larsen weren’t enlisted just to lend big names, run hard, and strike poses.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Kong: Skull Island end credits. If you pay close attention, the fine-print acknowledgments actually spoil the hidden scene that follows them. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…Loki and Captain Marvel find themselves in an interrogation room hosted by Agent 24 and his “geology” partner (Jing Tian from Great Wall), where to their surprise they’re not shouted at or tortured. Instead they’re welcomed to Monarch, the top-secret monster-hunting cabal that wants them aboard.
As part of their orientation, 24 turns on a film projector and shows them footage of cave paintings featuring four famous silhouettes — a giant flying creature, a giant moth, a giant three-headed dragon, and a giant upright lizard with tiny arms and a spiked ridge down its back whose unspoken name probably rhymes with “Schmodzilla”.
It’s cinematic universe time! Sure hope you like crossovers.