I’m tempted to start this one with “this ain’t your daddy’s King Kong” but I won’t. Even though indirectly I did. Which immediately brings up the problem with this film. It just wants to do too many different things. But first things first! What is it about?
The movie is a continuation of what the 2014 Godzilla (directed by Garath Edwards) began. Skull Island (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) can be seen as a prequel to the 2014 movie. At least in certain parts. We learn a little bit more about the Monarch project and what it does. The movie starts with Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks) meeting with a higher up politician in Washington. They want to ask for funds to finance an expedition to a newly discovered island in the Pacific. We learn that Monarch is on the verge of shutting down because the government wants to cut their funds. But they get that one last shot with the expedition. The year is 1973 and the movie uses every chance to slam it down your throat that the film plays in the 70s. We get some nice 60s and 70s music… even though you hear some of these songs in every damn 70s film. Especially war related films. Next we meet Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who is in charge of a helicopter squadron stationed in Vietnam. The US troops are preparing to leave the country and everyone is happy to go home. Packard gets called to take this one more mission escorting scientists to an unknown island and he gladly agrees. We learn, right from the get-go, that he’s a military man. But we also learn that there is mutual respect and love between him and his soldiers. In the mean time Randa and Hawkins track down former british agent James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). He’s an survival expert and knows his ways how to behave in a potential dangerous jungle environment. Last but not least Photojournalist (or “Anti-War Photographer” – probably the stupidest line in the film) Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) gets wind of the expedition and manages to go along with them.
All members of the crew collected, the film finally moves towards the island. Once the mission starts and they approach the island with their squad of helicopters, they have to cross or dive into a dense cloud formation that surrounds the island like a shield. A nice sequence that reminded me of the dust/sandstorm sequence in Mad Max: Fury Road. Although not nearly as competently shot and very chaotic. They pass the clouds and approach the island. The Monarch guys immediately start to map the island and use special bombs with seismic charges to measure out the consistency of the island’s surface. Kong shows up and goes “ape shit”. He picks the helicopters from the sky like flies and a battle sequence starts. Clearly our team has no chance but they still decide to go for it and open fire at Kong. While Kong does get hurt a little it definitely does not end well for our team. A lot of soldiers die and the rest is scattered in the area. Lt. Col. Packard immediately wants revenge. Of course. And I thought the film turns into Moby Dick now and it kinda does. Packard wants to bring his soldiers back together and wants to find everyone missing. Conrad wants to cross the island to reach a rendesvous point where within 3 days they’re supposed to refuel the helicopters. Their only chance to get off the island since all of their helicopters are destroyed. So Packard and Conrad split up with Packard going on with his soldiers and Conrad with the scientists and civilians.
Leaving the story description there, we are right at the point in the film where it becomes problematic. Like stated in my intro, the film doesn’t find a clear voice. From my description it sounds very action and drama loaded. The problem is that there are so many desperate attempts sprinkling in some humour into this film. A kind of humour that feels tonally completely off. It must be one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen. It is very apparent that they desperately wanted to wipe out the criticisms the 2014 Godzilla got. Which means: lighter tone, more action, more monster battles. The reason why I liked the 2014 Godzilla so much is because they had a consistent ‘less is more’ thing running in it. That made the big moments work. There was a buildup to those big moments that lets you appreciate the big moments when they happen. All that is thrown out the window for Skull Island. The only buildup we have is the beginning of the film when we meet our main cast. And even then there doesn’t really is that certain kind of atmosphere and suspense Godzilla created in the opening sequence with the nuclear plant. Later we meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a fighter pilot from WW2 who crashed on the island and stranded there. That character is another one with unnecessary comedy elements. I admit that I had to smile at some of the movie’s comedic elements. But at the same time it’s the wrong film for stuff like that. It entirely throws off the mood.
This film also has a weird relationship with death. There are so many people dying in this film and some of the deaths are so beyond meaningless that I wonder if there’s a message. Maybe about the Vietnam war and how useless it was and had so many young men die there for nothing? If that’s what they want to say then bravo… your film has some of the most useless character deaths I’ve seen so far. Which brings me to wasted talent. Looking at who is in the cast here it must be a good film! It must have at least some deeper moments that provoke thought! Jackson, Goodman, Hiddleston, Reilly! Great actors! But no, this film manages to give none of them real weight. It’s quite an achievement to be honest.
From what I said so far you could get the impression that it’s a through and through bad film. But no, it’s not. For what it wants to be it has enough to enjoy in it. For everyone who wants big monsters fight… it delivers. The sequences are, as usual, too long for my taste but they are well done. The CG work in these battle sequences is pretty much flawless and I wouldn’t know how to improve them in terms of quality. I also enjoyed the camera work quite a bit. They had some neat creative shots and angles they worked with and it paid off. Storywise we also don’t get too much stuff we already know from previous King Kong movies. Here and there are some strains that remind you of the original but it’s not played out entirely. Skull Island wants to be its own thing and for the most part it succeeds in doing so. Something I would also count as a positive for this film.
I saw the film in 3d and have to say the 3d worked nicely and was used in a fun way. The creature design and look also worked great and I’m sure we’ll see more of that in upcoming films. Throughout the film they threw around that infamous ‘hollow earth’ idea and I’m sure that will come up in the future. And sure, I like that idea and would like to see where they go from there.
I don’t know if the problems Godzilla and this film have stem from the directors. Edwards in 2014 was pretty much a newcomer and Vogt-Roberts is new in the game too. While I do think it’s good to get fresh ideas and voices into it… it could be one reason why the films ended up a little inconsistent. Even though I think Gareth Edwards did a much better job with Godzilla. Maybe it’s not even the directors and it’s more the screenplay that is to be blamed. Imdb has 3 writers for Skull Island. That’s 2 too many.
So ultimately it’s a high budget B-Movie with tons of weak points but some well done, fun moments as well. If you are, like me, a fan of the 2014 Godzilla don’t expect the suspense and buildup we had there. We see Kong pretty much right away along with the action.