When the original “King Kong” came out in 1933, it pioneered the genre of monster movie epics by presenting audiences with something they had never seen before. In the 83 years since that film’s release, we have been presented with monster movie spectacle on a continuously grander scale, even if it’s not always better.
Unfortunately, the same can be said about the latest attempt to revitalize the King Kong franchise.
Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) organizes an expedition to a mysterious land in the Pacific Ocean known as Skull Island. Among the participants in the expedition are former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver played (Brie Larson). Along with members of Packard’s helicopter squadron, the crew encounters a variety of dangerous creatures while also coming body to toe with the ruler of Skull Island, King Kong.
If that plot sounds familiar to you, it is because we have seen this plot about 185 times before from far better monster movies. For me, a good monster movie should either deliver on a storytelling level or as a pure roller coaster ride of popcorn fun. I do not need the most three-dimensional characters in a story like this one, but do they have to be so utterly uninteresting and dry?
There is only one character that has some semblance of dimension in the film, which is Hank Marlow (John C. Reily). Stranded on Skull Island since World War II, Marlow is shown to have become somewhat crazed while still hoping to one day get home. Given what a terrific actor he is, Reily takes what could have been simple comic relief and manages to give a performance which is simultaneously funny and human.
That is not to discredit the rest of the film’s terrific ensemble, but they have absolutely nothing to work with besides their basic character traits. Take, for example, how the immensely talented Larson is saddled in a thankless role taking pictures of the ensuing monster mayhem when she is not running from the creatures involved in it. Most of the actors are just there as the toys for the monsters to play with, running around the island from one big set piece to the next with no real stakes or connection to be found.
Due to the lack of engaging or charismatic characters, the first act of the movie, which sets everything, up is particularly a drag. To compensate, the film shoehorns popular songs over almost every scene. If it worked in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it would obviously work here too.
Once you get past that set up, things do admittedly pick up on the level of entertaining eye candy. The saturated aesthetic used on Skull Island does provide for a lot of visually pleasing sequences, and the big monster battles are cohesively filmed.
On the same token, I could not help but think of how this film feels lesser when compared to other monster movies in the past decade. Compared to the 2005 remake of “King Kong,” “Skull Island” fails to create any sort of dynamic between characters that make us feel for what we are watching.
Director Peter Jackson did the seemingly impossible with the King Kong legend by turning this horror film into a genuinely poignant story about a monster actually falling in love with the woman he abducts. “King Kong” (2005) is a good example of how to adapt an iconic story while putting a unique, emotional twist on the story.
Yet, I also like monster movies that have a lot of great spectacles and deliver on the mayhem. Even though the characters in “Godzilla” (2014) and “Jurassic World” (2015) were not anything outstanding, the incredibly well-executed spectacle and filmmaking in each movie compensated for any lacking areas.
The action scenes in “Skull Island” are fine, but they seem like lesser derivatives of better monster-movie battles. Making matters worse is that the final battle in “Skull Island” is an inferior knock-off of the great T-Rex battle in the 2005 “King Kong” remake.
Although this is not a horrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, it has a lot of problems even beyond the script. Scenes feel choppily strung together, the tone constantly switches from lighthearted to serious, and the narrative keeps changing its mind on what characters we are supposed to be focusing on.
You can watch “Skull Island” and get some visually pleasing entertainment out of it, but I would recommend that you wait to rent this movie at home. Despite getting more action with Kong than any other film in the series, the ruler of “Skull Island” certainly does not feel like a king.