Kong Skull Island

FAMILY NIGHT AT THE MOVIE | By Christopher Hill –

Giant monster movies then: campy, low-budget jaunts. Giant monster movies now: big-budget spectaculars designed to set up the next big-budget spectacular.

In 2014, we saw the return of Godzilla to the big screen. It had moments of popcorn fun but suffered a significant lack of its namesake. In an ironic twist, the best-known line from the film was Ken Watanabe’s, “Let them fight.” They didn’t. Three years later, we have something of a prequel in Kong: Skull Island, which brings the king of the jungle to life.

The year is 1973. As the Vietnam War comes to a close, a group of soldiers, led by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), combines with a scientific research team Led by William “Bill” Randa (John Goodman) and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to explore a previously unexplored island in the middle of the Pacific. Prominent addition Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is also onboard as a war photojournalist. Things go sideways quickly as they come face-to-helicopter with the epic ape. In the aftermath, the team is split, with some seeking revenge for the fallen against Kong, while the others look to escape their new island prison. In addition to angering the colossal chimp, they also awaken several subterranean creatures. In between battles, the group encounters a tribe of residents that house Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot marooned on the island for 28 years.

Unlike the 2014 Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island features its star on multiple occasions, which is a positive step forward. The action scenes are mostly fresh and engaging. As per usual with these films, we end up wanting to see even more of the behemoth. Instead, we are handed a menagerie of human characters, all given just enough screen time to be noticed but not enough to provide much emotional impact. This speaks to the tone of the film. Sometimes it seems to want to harken back to low-budget camp of the Japanese 1970s films. Marlow epitomizes that spirit; his character provides levity. However, his scenes are offset by a more intense colonel becoming obsessed with vengeance. A revised Captain Ahab journey and a potential turn to side with the beast would have made for a more interesting film. Likewise, a campy summer romp with a giant monkey would have made a good summertime popcorn flick. Instead, we get a little of both. It doesn’t make it a bad film – just one that feels uneven throughout.

Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard in Kong: Skull Island. Photo by Vince Valitutti.

The large number of characters with exposed backstories also muddies the flow. The stars are clearly Hiddleson and Larson, but their story is underdeveloped. They are simply interchangeable with almost all of the rest of the cast. In another example, a potentially emotional father-to-son moment is set up with an almost ancillary character, making the expansion static and the payoff, unfortunately, minimal.

Of course, a good monster mambo needs a beast, and Kong looks great. The CGi is fantastic, and the battles are uniquely constructed. For those who have ever wanted to see an enormous primate versus a dino-lizard looking creature in the world of mixed martial arts or pro wresting, then this is the right film. But those who want battles on a far more epic scale should watch the 2013 monster-movie fight classic Pacific Rim.

In the golden age of Japanese giant monster films, the stories focused on the monster. Rare was the nod to human character progression – or any development, for that matter. The films knew what they were and rarely aimed higher. Kong: Skull Island tried to focus on the monster, but an overextended cast moves this film to an imbalanced mixture of camp and angst. The final result is a decent enough action movie but not one that will be long-lasting in the minds of moviegoers or one that will encourage multiple views. Fans of the genre will enjoy the fighting sequences and like seeing their star more often. Kong: Skull Island is a small step in the right direction. It’s enough to keep building the franchise, but not enough to place Kong on top.

Kong: Skull Island

Now Showing: In Theaters Now

Rated: PG-13

Violence: Yes, death and dismemberment. Some is shown off-screen, but blood splatters are prevalent.   

Language: Minor, surprising for their circumstances.

Sexuality: None