Summary: A group of scientists and military personnel piss off King Kong. It goes as well as you think it would.
Skull Island was a flick I missed when it was initially released. It’s just one of those movies that peaked your interest enough to want to see it but keep putting it off because you weren’t in the mood for it at the moment. Alas, I was finally in the mood for some giant ape on lizard monster action!
This movie is actually a lot more fun than what I was expecting. The film boasts a large cast of likable characters and kick-ass giant monster brawls. The action scenes do a great job utilizing the scale of the creatures, how the humans fight with said creatures, and how the environment of the island can enhance the action. The best kind of giant monster battles is when the creatures use their surroundings to get the upper hand. Kong using the chain and anchor of a ship as a weapon? Pure awesome. Skull Island does boast some awesome insect creatures that lead to some tense bits of horror- however, I feel like the design of the main monster baddies, Skull Crawlers, continue the trend of boring gray monster designs in recent monster flicks like Jurassic World and Godzilla 2014. It’s almost as if the art directors think reptiles only come in grey and sometimes red (they should really take a page from Del Toro’s book… just saying).
As for the cast, I would say the characters are all likable but there are way too many of them. The movie’s large cast sometimes gets in the way of all the plots going on at once. It doesn’t help that the film decides to split characters up into smaller and smaller groups. The majority of the cast is really likable but don’t get enough time to shine individually. You would think it being a monster flick they would have multiple ways of thinning out the herd so to speak. Regardless, the film boasts a lot of fun character moments throughout. My personal favorite performance is Shea Whigham as an amazingly aloof and badass Marine.
The film chooses to be an action B-movie with a multi-million dollar scale instead of remaking the original film’s story. There is no Ann Darrow or Jack Driscoll, instead, we have all new characters, context, and geography to the King Kong mythos. Most of this being groundwork to set up the grander… Warner Bros’ Kaiju-verse? There are certainly changes that I appreciate. For instance, setting the film at the end of the Vietnam War adds a layer of commentary on the mental state of soldiers, colonialism, and environmentalism. Although we’ve seen the “ARMY BAD, NATURE GOOD” story done to death in fiction, the film adds the disappointment and frustration felt by the Marines losing the Vietnam War as motivation for killing Kong. The way the film handles the subjects isn’t at all new but I appreciated their inclusion nonetheless. I can especially appreciate the filmmakers taking their own approach with the King Kong story instead of doing another remake.
Another major change is the location of Skull Island itself. Most versions keep the island and indigenous peoples African, but this film decides on an Asian Pacific inspired locale. Most likely another change made to tie in with the larger Kaiju-verse and to keep Kong within punching distance of Godzilla. The setting itself works fine and is visually interesting. I think my only gripe with this new setting is the portrayal of the indigenous peoples. It’s disappointing that they are just portrayed as mysterious and mute with no real participation in the story besides providing info-dump shrines of Kong. The only real humanizing moment involving the tribe is an extended sequence where Brie Larson’s character is taking pictures Nat Geo style. To be fair, the tribe is not handled as blatantly racist as previous Kong films. It might not bother some viewers, but I just wish the writers would try a little more and not rely on tropes when writing indigenous folk.
As memorable as the characters, action, and locale were, the least engaging was the King himself. Sure, Kong beats up monsters and smacks helicopters in glorious fashion, but that’s it. The film builds up that Kong is the protector to the indigenous peoples and they, in turn, see him as their literal King. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give us a particular motivation to why this mutual relationship even exists. What does Kong get out of risking his life fighting the generic skull lizards? There are a few moments in the film where they try to make a connection between Brie Larson’s character and Kong, but it doesn’t lead to anything besides alluding to Ann Darrow (because of blonde). I’m probably reading too much into this, but it would be nice to visualize how Kong views the humans he’s protecting. It’s also disappointing Kong is relegated to just being a monster, when in most incarnations he does have a personality of his own. Toby Kebbell performed the motion capture, but really it seems his performance is mainly scowling at our human cast. Kong serves his purpose as a B-movie monster, I just wish he had a bit more going on with him.
In a film climate full of mediocre remakes, it’s nice to see a creative reimagining of a well-known source material. The cast is definitely the highlight of the film, and I would recommend solely on them alone. I would say check it out if you’re looking for some good big budget monster brawls. I definitely can’t wait to see what goes down when the King takes on the big old radioactive lizard himself.
For the record, Godzilla is totally gonna kick Kong’s furry butt. Two words: Atomic Breath!