King Kong is back!
And while he’s still king when it comes to defending Skull Island from giant monsters and aggressive humans, he’s not so adept at overcoming a bad script.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a new King Kong movie, produced by the same folks who made GODZILLA (2014), the one with Bryan Cranston. As such, it’s not a sequel to Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005), but as most everyone knows by now, a new story to set up a future King Kong vs. Godzilla bash which is scheduled for release in 2020, which is why Kong has been taking steroids.
Yup, in this movie, Kong is huge! Whereas in the Peter Jackson movie, Kong stood at 25 feet tall, here in KONG: SKULL ISLAND Mr. Kong stands at a towering 104 feet tall. The 25 feet tall is comparable to Kong’s height in the original 1933 film, and the tallest Kong appeared in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) where he stood at 147 feet.
For reasons I’m not sure I understand, KONG: SKULL ISLAND takes place in 1973, just as the Vietnam War comes to a close. Scientist and adventurer Bill Randa (John Goodman) asks for and receives—why?— federal funding to lead an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific in search of giant monsters. He also asks for and receives a military escort, led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s still smarting over the way the Vietnam War ended, for as Packard says, “we didn’t lose the war. We abandoned it.”
Also going along for the journey are professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as various other military folks and scientists who are just as under-developed as these main characters.
When they get to Skull Island, it doesn’t take them long to encounter Kong who quickly makes short work of them, downing their helicopters and killing most of them. Those who survive find themselves scattered on the island, but they know of a rendezvous point where more helicopters are scheduled to arrive to pick them up, and so they know if they can get there, they can be rescued.
Of course, Kong and the other giant creatures on the island have other ideas.
While I wouldn’t call KONG:SKULL ISLAND the worst Kong movie ever made— that distinction still belongs to the utterly horrible KING KONG LIVES (1986)— it’s certainly one of the stupidest Kong films ever. What a ridiculously inane story!
First of all, it’s not a new story at all. While technically not a remake of the original Kong tale, it basically tells the same story: a group of people travel to an uncharted island in search of something monstrous that supposedly lives there. It’s the same exact story, only without the Fay Wray character. This is the best the writers could do?
Don’t be fooled. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not an original tale. It’s just another origin story, and we’ve already had plenty of those. They’ve been called KING KONG. Sure, here it’s been altered to fit into a Vietnam era tale, but these alterations only make things more ridiculous.
I’m not really sure why there is a Vietnam connection. It’s obvious from the film’s poster that the filmmakers are going for an APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) connection. And while there’s plenty of cool 1970s songs on the soundtrack, along with wise cracking soldiers, none of it really works. It all just feels out-of-place.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does the film no favors with a choppy style that is more reminiscent of TOP GUN (1986) than APOCALYPSE NOW. Like TOP GUN, there are lots of characters who we never really get to know, often shown in brief music video-style clips which serves as a substitute for genuine character development.
The screenplay by three writers with considerable screen credits—Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly is pretty bad. It’s chock full of awful dialogue, and the only reason folks like John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston say their lines with straight faces is because they’re really good actors. And the story is a snooze. It’s an origin story disguised as monster movie/war movie hybrid, and it just doesn’t work. Gilroy wrote NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), Borenstein co-wrote GODZILLA (2014), and Connolly co-wrote JURASSIC WORLD (2015). KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not their best work.
Back in 1976, critics made fun of the fact that in the 1976 remake of KING KONG, Kong walked upright like a man, which was a clear departure from the way he walked in both the original 1933 classic and in the ensuing Japanese Toho productions. Kong was a giant ape and was supposed to walk like an ape. To be honest, I never had a problem with Kong walking upright in the 1976 version, as it is an interpretation which suggests that Kong is not just a giant ape but a different creature altogether. This interpretation makes Kong more monstrous.
I bring this up because here in KONG: SKULL ISLAND Kong once again walks upright. I don’t have a problem with this. However, I do have problems with Kong in this movie.
While Kong looks fine, he has to be the most boring King Kong ever to appear in a movie. In every Kong movie, even the Toho films, Kong has a personality. He is a definite presence in the film. He has no personality here. In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, Kong is nothing more than a slow-walking giant who battles both humans and monsters and that’s it. Not that I’m arguing that every Kong movie has to be a love story between Kong and a woman, because that’s not what I’m talking about. In other films, Kong has been angry, Kong has been heroic, and Kong’s has been ruthless. It’s these emotions which have set Kong apart from other giant monsters in the movies, and while Kong goes through the motions in this movie, I never felt these emotions at all.
It’s one of my least favorite Kong interpretations of all time.
One thing the movie does have going for it is it is full of good actors, and so you cannot argue that the acting is bad here. In fact, the acting in spite of the silly script, is one of the film’s best parts.
Tom Hiddleston, who plays the villain Loki in the MARVEL superhero movies, a character I have never liked, is very good here as hero tracker James Conrad, in spite of the laughable dialogue he has to say. The same can be said for John Goodman, who plays adventurer Bill Randa, a sort of Carl Denham character— in fact, the clothes he wears in this movie are an homage to the clothes Denham wore in the 1933 original film—and who has to say even worse dialogue.
Brie Larson also does a fine job with Mason Weaver, although like every one else in the movie, her character is way under developed. Samuel L. Jackson probably fares the worst, because in addition to his lousy dialogue, his military character is strictly cliché, the type of character who always seems to show up in a giant monster movie, the military officer who takes out his misplaced frustrations on the giant monster, vowing to kill the creature at all costs. Blah, blah, blah.
The most interesting character in the film is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a World War II pilot who was shot down during the war and has been living on Skull Island ever since when he is discovered by the folks in this movie. Reilly has a field day with the role, and he has all of the best lines in the movie.
In fact, the story of KONG: SKULL ISLAND is really the story of Hank Marlow. The film begins with him being shot down, and the entire story arc in the movie which goes all the way into the end credits follows his tale, not Kong’s, which would have been okay, had I bought a ticket to see HANK MARLOW: SKULL ISLAND.
Surprisingly, there are not any dinosaurs on Skull Island, this time around, but there are plenty of giant creatures. Some work, others don’t. I liked the giant spider and the bird creatures, but Kong’s main adversary in this film, giant reptilian creatures which come out from underneath the ground, did not work for me. I thought they looked really silly.
The giant spider is an homage to the giant spider in the pit scene from the original KING KONG (1933) which was cut upon release, lost, and has remained missing ever since. Kong’s fight with a giant octopus is also an homage to a similar scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).
There is an after-credit scene, but I didn’t stay for it. I had had enough by the film’s end.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND isn’t really all that intense. In fact, you can make the argument that the 1933 original KING KONG is a far more intense film than this 2017 edition.
I love King Kong and I’m a huge fan of the King Kong movies, both the good and the bad, and so I can’t say that I hated KONG: SKULL ISLAND. I just thought it was really stupid, and I didn’t particularly like the interpretation of Kong in this movie. The actors all do a good job, but they’re in a story that doesn’t help them at all.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND is certainly one of the weaker films in the KONG canon.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.