This article does contain spoilers for the film Kong: Skull Island.
Kong: Skull Island is another reset of the King Kong franchise. That being said, it is not a bad film; not a great one either.
First, let me say what this film actually accomplishes.
- Puts King Kong in the same universe as the 2014 Godzilla film
- Sets up Godzilla 2 (looks like Godzilla Destroy All Monsters)
- Sets up Godzilla versus King Kong (rumored Godzilla 3)
- Gives an idea of how Monarch was founded
That being said, this movie is nothing more than a set up for expanding the Godzilla (2014) universe. The 2014 movie had left people wondering: who are Monarch? Beyond that simple question, the 2014 Godzilla is a great standalone film that provided the potential for sequels. Kong lacks that stand alone feel. Throughout this film it feels like it is a set up film. The island world is shown, teased at, and then semi-subtle references to events that took place in the Godzilla 2014 universe during the 1970s are presented. Once the references start flying, most viewers will get the gist that this is a setup film.
Here is the simplified story outline, this way I avoid serious spoilers, beyond the obvious “let them fight” climax.
- First recon satellites find legendary island
- Research group sets off to explore said island
- Monarch uses Communist Russia as a reason to tag along with the research group
- Sam Jackson’s character and his team are introduced
- Go to the island
- All hell breaks loose when they drop bombs and anger the giant Ape
- Travel to the other side of the island to escape, meeting monsters and NPCs along the way
- Godzilla fights the giant armor headed bipedal lizard snake things
- Kong wins
- Closing exposition and setup for Godzilla 2 (might as well be called Destroy All Monsters)
That is an incredible simplification of this film, but if you are expecting anything deeper, you will be sadly disappointed. The characters in this film on the whole are forgettable. This is to be expected as they are just a driving element in causing the giant monsters to beat the ever living snot out of each other, in what can best be described as a celebrity death match.
Samuel L. Jackson has recently been on the villain kick in his roles, and as human characters go, you could call him a villain in the simple terms. His character Preston Packard is a Viet Nam commander who has a hard time accepting that the war is over, and that the USA has given up/lost this war. He is lost without the war and is looking for something to focus his energies on. Through story elements Preston Packard become Captain Ahab obsessively seeking revenge on his own white whale. This sub-plot becomes the driving force behind a number of senseless deaths in the film. The character is neither sympathetic nor even likeable and his quest for vengeance is ultimately his downfall and that of his team.
Tom Hiddleston is introduced as a former SAS expert tracker James Conrad. David Fielding (Original Zordon from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) covered my sentiments on this character on his blog
they missed the boat and should’ve put Kebbell’s character more at the forefront and ditched the SAS tracker character altogether – but as Hiddleston has more star power
At points, his character detracts from the story because he simplifies and speeds up the journey across the island. He is the expert “scout” and “can track a falcon on a cloudy day.” His character comes across as a result of a focus group who found that Toby Kebbell’s Chapman could not carry the movie as the sympathetic hero. I will return to Chapman later in this article.
John Goodman plays the obsessed Bill Randa, the founder of Monarch, and the only character who is actually excited about being on this island. The character is both secretive about what is going on and exploring with a wide eyed wonder. His secretive nature about what he knows is a true detriment to the story, which is common in disaster movies as a way of forcing the characters into situations that could have been avoided by this archetype divulging a little bit of information about what his organization does, and what he was expecting to find on this expedition.
John C. Reilley, who I typically do not like because he is often cast as stereotypical stupid comedy relief, actually was one of the redeeming characters in the film. His character, Hank Marlow, is a crashed WWII pilot forced to live on this island with the natives. He has survived this long by being intelligent and respecting the living creatures of this island. He consistently tries to introduce reason into this party by reminding them over and over again to respect the creatures of this island. This introduces the only character that you want to see make it off the island by the end of the film.
Of the characters worth mentioning, there is Mason Weaver played by Brie Larson. By best description, she is there to include the token female element, fulfill one of the King Kong tropes (Kong falls for the female lead), and give Conrad something to ogle. The character is a photojournalist who covered the events of the Viet Nam war. Through some magical means, she gets herself onto this expedition and forms a pseudo relationship with Conrad. A big problem with her character is that she has grown too worldly. She has seen so much that she does not fulfill the “Damsel in Distress” trope. This trope is something, that while most people want the character to die horribly, it helps create an urgency and need beyond “we have to get off this island” to protect and fight to survive. A strong female character can still do the “Damsel in Distress” if the writers take the time to write her strengths into the character and allow her the opportunities to put herself into the unfortunate situations. The “Damsel in Distress” is a way of putting the characters in jeopardy and force them to explore in ways that a normal human would never do. This is a horror and monster movie trope, and without it, the film feels more like a disaster movie.
Death… death… and more death. You have to admit that going to see this movie, you have the expectation that giant monsters are going to kill humans in oddly humorous ways. As a viewer you expect it, you are waiting for it, you want to be amused and entertained by these forces of nature killing the stupid humans. Here is where the real problems start to crop up.
In the 2014 Godzilla film, there was a build up to seeing Godzilla fight the MUTO in California. The deaths along the way were meaningful. They left you with this feeling of awe and wonder at the power of Godzilla and the destructive force of Godzilla and the MUTO. The devastation was there, a lot of it left to the imagination of the viewer to fill in the blanks. This filling in of the blanks let the viewer become involved in the film by having to think and imagine everything else going on. You followed Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody on this adventure as a traveling companion; you still wanted to see him get squished or eaten for being a generally unintelligent character. While it is not a great movie, in some ways is superior to Kong.
Monsters, monsters, where are all the monsters?
Contrasting Godzilla 2014 is Kong. The film presents you with a world that you and the characters are experiencing for the first time together, but unlike Godzilla, the viewer wants to experience and explore this world as it is completely foreign to the viewer.
While the party makes their way across this island, they encounter five giant monsters that are not Kong or the Skull Crawlers (and have a giant ant mentioned). They are a Giant Octopus, Spider Thing of Death, Yak, Camouflage Tree Bug, and another Yak. On an island with limited size—so much so you can travel across it in two days via foot and boat while also taking a side trip to kill half your party—you should encounter more than 5 non-starring monsters. One would expect that mega-bugs would be everywhere; one would expect that the party would be trying to avoid these giants or at least become aware of more than what they encountered in the film. The party travels along with what feels like a bad Dungeon Master who just airlifted a random monster, monster swarm, or a giant monster as if to say “Here’s a monster now because… I don’t know… I need them.” The other issue is that the characters react in a way that makes it feel like you are playing a bad D&D adventure where the players have a monster compendium in their hand to look up what the monster is, then take that knowledge to play their character. Their reactions never seem to be of fear and reverence to what is on this island. Kong’s monsters seem to be thrown in at random times just to kill some unsuspecting character or remind them they exist here for no reason.
Deaths of main characters at times seem cruel. While in the real world, deaths occur like this all the time, in a film, deaths of main characters need a meaning. If there is not a meaning, the viewer is left with feeling of disappointment. This happens a couple of times in the movie. The deaths of characters for no reason other than to present a cruel world and make the viewer cringe (MAJOR SPOILERS):
- John Ortiz’s character, Victor Nieves, is a whiny scientist, similar to Martin Ferrero’s Gennaro (the lawyer) from Jurassic Park. He is going to die. It is a trope that the whiny character is going to die in a humorous way. Gennaro dies while hiding in an outhouse being gobbled up by a T-rex, it was funny. Victor Nieves get carried off by a small reptile bird monster, which starts out as amusing, then mid-air a number of these “birds” proceed to draw and quarter him. The problem is that the viewer is expecting “gobbled up hiding on the toilet” and instead gets a gory, poorly CGed sequence. There was no humor in his death, and the audience actually made an audible response, not laughs, but more shock and disgust. The death also occurred at a point where there was no perceived danger, so the death was more uncomfortable, teetering this movie more into the realm of disaster movie.
- The first quarter of this movie is driven by Chapman, a character that the story makes a significant effort to get you to like. This is the character that you as a viewer want to go down swinging if he is going down. You are built up for this. You want him to live or die fighting. In the end his death is tragic, unheroic, and cruel. Again, the audience at my screening was audibly disgusted and disappointed. The overall feeling was that this is not what should happen in a giant monster movie. Survival horror or disaster film? Yes. Giant monster film? No. Even how the rest of the party discovers he is dead is cruel and unfulfilling: his skull and dog tags are vomited up by the monster that ate him.
- The last of the unnecessary, cruel deaths is that of Bill Randa. I know many people will disagree with me in that his death was unnecessary or cruel. From a story point that is probably true. His death was, in some ways, meant to be a comedy death. His camera flash starts going off randomly while he is standing still taking photos. He pauses, realizes what is going on, goes “oh shit,” and is gobbled up. As he is being swallowed you see his flash going off, over and over again, as he is being digested and the rest of the party is trying to kill the monster. My problem here is first, watching the flash go off over and over again giving the illusion that he is still alive while being digested. Secondly, this is the only character in the entire film that wants to see this world and prove he is not crazy. He wants to learn and explore. He needs to get off the island to believably build Monarch to what it will become. The Monarch person who does live, does not present himself with enough confidence, wide eyed wonder, desire, and drive to lead Monarch to what we will see in Godzilla 2014.
One last thing to note before I wrap this up, the CG in the film at times breaks the believability. A traditional rubber suit and animatronics would have worked better for the handful of close-up sequences between Mason and Kong. The worst offender of this was the night scene, a scene which is traditionally flattering in films of this genre. Kong looked good until they composited him face to face with any of the characters. Again, there is also the death of Victor Nieves, which looks bad to the point of almost hand drawn animation.
Looking at this film, I wonder what genre it is supposed to be? Is it survival horror? A classic Giant Monster movie? A Sci-fi film? A disaster film? A classic horror film? An action adventure film? A war movie? It needed to pick one. The collection of sub plots gave the film a disjointed feeling, making me wonder where it was going and why. This made all the characters forgettable in the long run and you could have easily substituted Godzilla in for Kong and no one would have been the wiser. I think if it picked one or two sub-plots it would have helped this film be something special, memorable, beyond being a prequel for Godzilla 2014 and a setup for Godzilla 2 and Godzilla vs. Kong.
Overall: 3rd Gear