MARCH 12, 2017
I was rarely as excited for a big blockbuster as I was for Peter Jackson's King Kong back in December of 2005. It came out the night I flew home to see my family for Christmas, and I was so hellbent on seeing the film I barely even saw any of them before racing off to the theater for the next showing. And within an hour, I felt myself sinking into my seat, feeling guiltier and guiltier about ditching them for that slog of a movie. I knew it was long, but I figured Peter Jackson - the guy who made Dead Alive and was now free to do whatever he wanted post-LOTR - would dive into Skull Island's creatures and give us a $200m creature feature. Instead we got ice skating, and it was just the first of what has been an unbroken streak of disappointing movies from this former hero of mine. Luckily, twelve years later, I got to see most of that movie I wanted to thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Kong: Skull Island, which is an hour shorter and features twice as much monster action.
In fact, things start a touch quicker than I even expected. Jurassic Park was a clear influence on the filmmakers here, but there's no long buildup like that movie had - I think that scene from the trailers where Kong tosses a tree through the windshield of a helicopter comes at about the 30 minute mark. Since there's an action scene right at the top (a flashback that establishes the John C. Reilly character, who crashes on the island along with a Japanese pilot during a WWII dogfight), that means there's really only about 25 minutes worth of setup before the movie becomes, more or less, a nonstop chase/fight movie. Our heroes are going to the island to take photos and see what's there (John Goodman's character is pretty sure there are monsters there, but the mission is disguised as mere recon to see what resources the island may have, before the Russians get there first), and Kong's big initial attack wipes out about half of them and scatters the others into two primary groups. One group stumbles across Reilly and the other jungle inhabitants, and learn that Kong is actually kind of a good guy and acts as the primary defense against the real dangers of the island. The other group, for the most part, keeps running into those other dangers. We go back and forth between the two groups for a while, which allows for a perfectly balanced mix of adventure and character development; we're never away from action for too long, but we also get to know the people who may or may not be eaten by "Skull Crawlers" or giant squids, or stomped on by Kong as he makes his way around his home.
Well, to be fair, we get to know MOST of the people. Goodman, Sam Jackson, Reilly, and Shea Whigham (as one of Jackson's men) get to play fairly complete characters, but they're all billed below Tom Hiddleston, who really serves no function in the movie other than to look gravely concerned at whatever the next obstacle is. He is hired because the island is unknown territory and they need a badass like him to guide them through. He's basically Indiana Jones and Han Solo rolled into one guy, at least as far as his introduction goes - but once they're all on the island he really doesn't do a hell of a lot. He kills a few flying monsters with a sword (while wearing a gas mask, so his big hero moment could just be a stunt guy for all we know) and supplies Brie Larson with the tool that save their lives later, but I honestly think if you digitally erased him from like 90% of his scenes there would be zero effect on anything. He's just THERE, as if they hired him before writing the script and forgot to include his character in the plot, but didn't have the heart to tell the actor he was no longer needed. Near the end he becomes the voice of reason against Jackson, who just wants to kill Kong and everything else on the island, but that stuff could have been given to Larson or Reilly (the latter also serves as their guide once he's introduced, so at that point Tom doesn't even have a useful skill for the group anymore). Larson fares slightly better, but also feels a bit like someone noticed late in the development that they needed another female character in there, rather than an essential part of the plot.
Amazingly, the movie manages to overcome the fact that it doesn't give its two main characters anything to do. While the CGI occasionally suffers from that weightlessness that big movie monsters tend to have (when Kong is toppled during a fight, it feels like his size should be causing a tidal wave or earthquake, but the humans nearby barely flinch), for the most part it shows us the best money can buy. The designers have some up with a variety of monsters, including spiders with legs that are so long that they are initially mistaken for trees, and a four-legged creature that is made out of wood and bark, and acts like a scared dog when shot at. Kong and the "Skull Crawlers" get the majority of the screentime devoted to beasties, but I'm glad that they peppered in some others to flesh out the world of the island a bit more (we're also told that there are ants that sound like birds, but we never see them). And not all of them are antagonists, which adds to the Jurassic Park-y feel - some are just cool to look at and won't hurt you, like the "veggie-sauruses" of that movie. Stuffier types might find it annoying that the monsters are more fleshed out than the characters, but they probably also complained that Godzilla wasn't in Godzilla '14 enough, because such folks are never happy and certainly never consistent, so don't listen to them.
The movie also has a bit of a mean streak that I appreciated. Not like, Silent Night Deadly Night levels of gleeful hatred towards humanity, but certainly more than I was expecting for a PG-13 movie that attracted kids. There's an obvious hero type who gets wiped out at the halfway mark, and that scene in the trailer where a character seems to be sacrificing himself to save his friends doesn't quite work the way anyone would expect. It's also got a respectable amount of carnage (including a through the mouth impaling!) and even a few kinda scary bits (the spider scene, mostly). But it's also funnier than I would have assumed; Reilly is even more gutbusting than he appeared to be from the trailer (I'm still laughing at his final line to the native people), and Whigham gets a number of good, crowd-pleasing lines. There's also terrific use of a Nixon bobblehead (you just have to see it) and even Kong gets a couple of smiles, like when he slurps a giant squid leg like spaghetti (he also uses a big propeller like a kind of brass knuckles, which is awesome).
Less successful is the editing, which shows a number of seams. This movie is under two hours (and that's with very lengthy credits on account of the CGI), and I suspect that wasn't always the case, because what major blockbuster movies are under two hours anymore? At one point Larson begins talking about the Japanese pilot in the past tense, but since she obviously never met him nor had Reilly mentioned him, there was clearly a scene or at least a few lines to set up her reaction. It's not until about ten minutes later that it's even clear who she was referring to, which is just plain awkward storytelling no matter how you slice it. There is also a cutaway of a hex nut falling in between some gears on their boat, which you can assume is foreshadowing a malfunction down the road, but there's no payoff for it. And I'm pretty sure Sam Jackson's squad respawns at some point, because I kept mentally trying to keep track and there were always more alive than I could have sworn was possible given the casualties we just witnessed. As with the weird lack of a point to the Hiddleston character, it's not a crippling flaw, but it definitely raised an eyebrow more than once, and I can't help but wonder if some exec demanded some cuts at the 11th hour to shorten the runtime, resulting in some sloppier than usual editing for a movie this size.
So it's not a home run, but it's a lot closer to one than I would expect out of current day Warner Bros, which is always seemingly bungling its big movies by treating them as parts of a long-running franchise that's being forced on us from inception, as opposed to the good old days where they'd only make sequels to movies we liked. Indeed, the post-credits scene is just there to set up a vs. film with Godzilla (whether it will be the one from the 2014 movie, or a new incarnation a la Batman in BvS, I'm not sure), but at least they weren't dropping a bunch of teasers for it throughout the film like they did in BvS with its bullshit Flash cameos and such. But unlike BvS, this actually excites me about returning to this world; maybe not in a vs. movie, but I'd love to come back to Skull Island (perhaps in a prequel, with Reilly's character in an Enemy Mine kind of scenario with the Japanese pilot) and meet more of its inhabitants. Naturally, they've already dated the vs. film (and, sigh, hired writers to come up with the story for it AFTER they promised us when we'd see it), but as with its DC characters, the shared mega movies being planned doesn't mean we can't get stand-alone entries in the same world. Naturally, I'm more excited about giant monsters than superheroes (even with my beloved Affleck as Batman), so the fact that Skull Island is (so far) better received than any of their DC films is hopefully a good sign that more will be coming.
What say you?