Rebooting a movie franchise is hard enough; rebooting a franchise into a whole new cinematic universe is a challenge the size of giant ape.
Kong: Skull Island meets three-quarters of the challenge in front of it, offering viewers an exciting enough mini-blockbuster that also opens the door on a giant monster movie universe just wide enough to get moviegoers invested. Thankfully, that road ahead is enticing enough to distract from all the many, many, flaws that Skull Island has as a standalone feature.
After a brief flashback to WWII (where an American and Japanese pilots first crash land on Skull Island), we pickup the story in the late 1970s, where researchers Bill Randa (John Goodman), Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), and their organization, Monarch (remember that name...) are pushing the US government for an expedition to a remote island where there have been some mysterious energy spikes and readings.
When the government acquiesces, Randa and Brooks get outfitted with a military escort that includes career war dog Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson); mercenary tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); all-star photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a handful of other soldiers and scientists along for the ride.
Getting to Skull Island proves tough, but not as tough as what happens when the group finally reaches the skies over the island. There, they find a giant ape waiting to greet them - an ape who shrugs off their guns and smashes their fleet of helicopters like they were gnats. Battered, scattered, with their manpower and supplies all dangerously low, the surviving members of the expedition band together in four smaller groups, each headed to the rendezvous point for extraction. However, King Kong proves to the be the least of the threats waiting for the group in the jungles of Skull Island, as far worse monsters are revealed to be lurking about. Soon, what starts as an organized plan of extraction becomes a desperate bid to escape - while there is still someone left alive to make it out, and warn the world.
Kong: Skull Island is the first blockbuster movie from Kings of Summer filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and the first King Kong movie since Peter Jackson attempted a modestly-received remake of the classic film in 2005. Skull Island does a lot of things right (stunning visuals, big action); however, it also shows a lot of the rough, unpolished edges of a newcomer filmmaker, who was perhaps overwhelmed by the task of putting together a film of this magnitude.
Scene-for-scene, Skull Island is a showcase of both strong visual composition (thank Batman v Superman cinematographer Larry Fong), and smart visual iconography, with some thrilling action moments that use clever film techniques (panning, angling) to turn traditionally mundane green screen and CGI-heavy sequences into more novel viewing experiences. For many viewers, it will be enough that the film delivers the action and giant monster mayhem they want, so in that sense, Vogt-Roberts achieved his primary goal: entertain the audience.
On the other hand, any kind of cursory critical examination of Skull Island (beyond those action moments) reveals a jumbled mess of a film, which seems like it was cut together out of desperation to make deadline, rather than being organized into a logical progression. There are poor edits all over the film, leaving many of the "seams" to show through. Scenes come along that clearly were supposed to be longer or had more to them at one point, and there jarring inaccuracies in things like makeup work or the chronology between one scene and another. When examined in whole, the entire film is clearly a jumbled collection of individual scene that got stitched together in editing, in the hope that each action set piece would redeem the weak narrative around it.
Skull Island cannot even make up its mind about who it wants to favor as its protagonist. More than any other King Kong movie, this film makes Kong a central character - one who is (ironically) a lot more complex and intriguing then his flesh-and-blood co-stars. Except for the giant ape, the characters of Skull Island are woefully one-note and often contradictory - almost as if the main characters were rewritten halfway through the movie. Hiddleston's Conrad goes from jaded to noble in a split second; Jackson's Packard is somehow both disillusioned and ridiculously fanatical; Larson's Weaver is independent and untamed, yet plays damsel in distress for Conrad the whole time; the list goes on. Thankfully, the movie spends a lot of time on Kong, with the human characters either not present or simply spectating from the side without actively participating. It's a curious thing when a CGI character can steal a movie out from under Oscar-winners and nominees - but that's exactly what happens with Sull Island. Truthfully, it's a waste of an overall fantastic cast.
On a story level, the script by Mx Borenstein (Godzilla), Derek Connolly (Jurassic World) and Dan Gilroy (Bourne Legacy) puts most of its effort into sketching out a new King Kong mythos that will segue into a larger giant monster movie universe. There are some great connections made to the rebooted Godzilla franchise, as well as fun nods to the cinematic histories of both Kong and Godzilla - all leading up to (what now seems like) an epic King Kong vs. Godzilla crossover in 2020. However, beyond the exciting reveals of how Skull Island connects to Godzilla, the actual story at hand is pretty poor in terms of narrative arc, character development, and thematic resonance. Every trope of a survival horror or monster movie gets trotted out: we're talking bottom-barrel, B-movie material here. The humans and their stories don't really matter, as they are more fodder than characters. That loving family man just got shredded by nightmarish killer birds? Who cares, don't even remember his name! When's the next Kong fight?
In the end, Kong: Skull Island delivers a mindless (but fun) blockbuster-lite experience. As stated, the film succeeds in bringing a badass new version of King Kong into the limelight, and giving him an exciting new world to play in. However, if you were expecting anything more than generic B-movie monster flick, do yourself a favor: realign expectations, grab a matinee ticket, some IMAX 3D glasses (worth it), a lot of popcorn, and a little "me" time away from your brain.
Kong: Skull Island is now playing in theaters. It is 2 hours long and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
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