Both previous attempts at remaking King Kong have yielded mixed results. Personally, I can’t remember the original well enough to tell you how much I liked it, but I’m pretty sure I’m a fan. The 1976 remake with Jeff Bridges is notable mainly because Jeff Bridges is awesome, and in this version Kong scales the (then) recently completed Twin Towers, rather than the Empire State Building. Peter Jackson took a swing at the franchise in 2005, resulting in a sometimes fun, largely empty spectacle that didn’t make enough at the box office to justify jump starting a new franchise.
So, what to do? Are people just tired of Kong? Has the special effects bar been raised so high that nobody can be impressed anymore? Is the market so over saturated by loud, colorful, big budget blockbusters that nothing means anything any more?
Bringing a new version of everyone’s favorite super-sized simian to the big screen was going to require a pretty big hook. Luckily, monster movies seem to be enjoying something of a mild resurgence, with another Godzilla in the works, despite nobody really being that excited about it. Meanwhile, Universal is feeling confident enough to continue its misbegotten attempts at a shared universe where Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolfman are all part of some weird, undead Avengers-style commando unit.
You know, just like everyone’s always dreamed.
Shared universes are all the rage, and if you can snag a recognizable property and attach one or two A-list actors to it, so much the better. I feel like a lot of these movies get made because they HAVE to get made. Everyone else is doing a shared universe, so who have we got? There’s a lot of money on the table and I don’t blame any studio for taking a crack at it, but rarely does it turn out well.
But regardless of whether it was made with pure intentions or as a freeze dried prequel to another Godzilla flick, Skull Island either works, or it doesn’t. So, does it?
Skull Island is the traditional home of King Kong. It’s a hidden sanctuary in the South Pacific, surrounded by a shroud of impenetrable clouds. The US Government becomes privy to rumors of this mysterious place where prehistoric creatures still roam. Not wanting the Soviets to get there first (the film takes place in 1973), an armed expedition is launched. The brains behind the operation is Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is part of the international Project Monarch team that was introduced in Godzilla. Their job is to track down and catalogue kaiju, and Skull Island represents their validation.
For muscle, former SAS Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired for his ability to fire any weapon, use any knife, and just generally badass himself out of any sticky situation. Transporting the expedition is Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a hardened Vietnam veteran who takes no shit, suffers no fools, and certainly does not believe in monsters or myths. When the team arrives at Skull Island, they try to map the area using seismic charges. It works really well, giving them a lot of visibility into what appears to be a massive network of underground tunnels. Something amazing is hiding underneath Skull Island, and everyone pats themselves on the back for uncovering it.
Unfortunately, the bombing disturbs the island’s alpha beast, a ten story ape capable of uprooting full grown trees and hurling them through a helicopter from a half mile away. The opening encounter with Kong and Packard’s squadron of attack choppers is possibly the most exhilarating sequence in the film. It’s delivered from the perspective of the soldiers, so you get a real feel for the visceral horror of suddenly being attacked by a hundred foot tall rage-monkey.
John C. Reilly plays Harlow, an American GI who crash landed on Skull Island at the tail end of WWII, and managed to make friends with the natives and learn about the island, which is indeed populated by all manner of appalling hell-beasts. And Kong is the biggest of them all. You might say that puts him in a position of leadership worthy of a title (Prince Kong? President Kong? I don’t know…)
The decision is made to evacuate Harlow and the rest of the expedition, but Packard wants revenge against Kong. To get it, he willfully dispenses with all logic – military and otherwise – placing himself and everyone else in mortal danger for no good tactical reason. Everyone just goes along with it, because how else are we going to set up all those sweet fistfights between building sized monsters?
And there are fistfights aplenty. But sadly, Skull Island quickly goes full Alien: Covenant by turning our formerly competent, highly trained experts into amateurish clowns the moment shit goes sideways. I have no problem with Packard wanting to take out the creature that wrecked his unit. But once it becomes clear there isn’t enough firepower on the island to have a chance against a twenty ton apex predator, you’d think that would be the time to bug out.
Nope. Even when Packard is given clear options that might allow him to rescue the civilians, murder Kong and never lose a man again, he refuses. As a result, second half of Skull Island is one series of action set pieces after another, driven by the increasingly moronic behavior of the Colonel. So yes, the special effects are (mostly) impressive, but it’s hard to feel compassion or interest in stock characters whose every challenge is self-created.
Packard is mainly a collection of angry tics and military tropes. Hiddleston is suitably boss and has a British accent, but also precious little to do. Goodman is personally appealing as always, but his Project Monarch feels just as irrelevant here as they did in Godzilla. The cast’s saving grace is Reilly, whose delightful eccentricity represents the story’s sole voice of reason.
There are also women in the movie; did you know that? Jing Tian appears as a Monarch agent just long enough to make her parents proud, but that’s it. Honestly, her character feels like she’s there because Skull Island needed to do well in China, Brie Larson plays the Fay Wray part, meaning she’s a superfluous accessory designed to serve as a catalyst for whatever shred of humanity Kong possesses. There’s really no reason for her to be there at all, other than to make the project feel less male dominated.
As for the most dominant male of them all, isn’t it great that the first thing we discuss about a King Kong movie isn’t whether or not Kong looks real? Visual effects have evolved to the point where yes, I completely bought into the monkey. Kong himself is a well realized character and unlike his pal Godzilla, he gets ample screen time in his own movie. But there’s something exhausting about the monster battles in Skull Island. It’s been awhile since Kong punched something, so he perfunctorily punches something. Meanwhile puny humans scurry beneath his feet, largely unable to affect the action.
This is a common problem with these kinds of films. Making the godlike monster and the squishy humans not feel like they’re in two different movies is easier said than done. This is the second Kong that just feels like a theme park ride with humans stuck in the machinery.
But I still enjoyed it thanks to Reilly, who is the heart of the film (and its most human character) and Kong (who registers as the second most). Everyone else is just kind of there, either as dinosaur kibble or as background noise for Packard’s increasingly improbable series of grave mistakes. Basically, Skull Island is a bad Alien movie with a giant monkey in the middle of it.
Despite that, it’s not that hard to have at least a little fun watching all this. A talented cast does their best to massage a weak script, and the action is pretty immersive. A fun period soundtrack keeps things light, even while falling just short of turning the whole thing into a bad music video a-la Suicide Squad. There’s a wistful, devil-may-care sense of adventure to this movie that hearkens back to the original without making the mistake of actually trying to re-create it.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts is the latest up-and-coming director to be handed the reins to a corporate crafted blockbuster, and for the most part, he does a great job of staying out of the way. And while Skull Island fell short of its budget domestically, it more than made up for it worldwide. Vogt-Roberts has successfully burnished his resume AND added a little pop to the dismal summer of 2017.
But only just a little. And like it or not, even though nobody asked for it, the Warner Bros/Legendary Monsterverse is coming.
Getcha popcorn ready.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."