It’s hard to do a monster movie in the vein of Godzilla or Gamera, and while Kong: Skull Island isn’t a groundbreaking movie, it is a wicked homage to the monster movies of decades past.
Kong: Skull Island seems to thrive on its ridiculousness. Almost every corner of the movie feels exaggerated, from the acting to the cinematography. It’s a surreal experience, one that almost feels like a fever dream, but that doesn’t take away from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts skills. It’s Vogt-Roberts’ use of slowed down sequences and different framing that makes the monsters feel as petrifying as they do. Skull Island may be a silly movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie.
The most important thing to know about Skull Island is that it’s stunning. The film is supposed to evoke a feeling of wanderlust and curiosity, and Vogt-Roberts manages to capture that wonderfully, making Skull Island feel like the beautiful, but haunted former paradise it’s supposed to be. He makes Kong feel taller and more monstrous by nature with slow pans from his thighs to his eyes. Yet when the movie needs to be soft and gentle, Vogt-Roberts manages to make everything feel small again, despite the enormity of the story he’s created.
Kong: Skull Island captures the heart and terror of what made films like Godzilla so beloved, but there’s a modernity to the movie that adds a little extra. Like traditional monster movies, there’s also a strong, less than subtle social and political message brewing underneath the main story arc. Skull Island manages to feel unique, but is full to the brim of references and homages to titanic films that inspired it.
It’s not perfect, but there’s something there
Kong: Skull Island takes place just before the events of Godzilla (2014) and marks the second entry in Legendary Pictures’ Monster Cinematic Universe. The film is set in 1975, just as the Vietnam War is coming to an end. A group of helicopter pilots who belong to the American Air Force, led by Samuel L. Jackson, are ordered to take a couple of scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) to an undisclosed, classified location. Along with a war photographer (Brie Larson) and a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), the small army sets off toward Skull Island.
From the very moment they reach the once-thought-to-be-fictional island, it’s 90 minutes of continuous action. Skull Island never lets you forget that it’s supposed to be a monster movie. It incorporates just the right amount of cathartic humor to not keep you in a state of anxiety for the entire film, but Vogt-Roberts uses off-camera sounds, smart framing and lighting to keep the suspense high. One of the things Skull Island does really well is playing with different viewpoints to make the film feel different in scope depending on the scene.
When the focus is on the crew, you can almost forget that there are a number of monsters lurking around the island — it’s not just Kong they need to keep an eye out for. When Kong or any other monster does enter the picture, however, the way the movie feels changes dramatically. The change doesn’t feel forced or take away from the actual experience, though. It’s an impressive feat and a testament to Vogt-Roberts’ skills as a director.
Naturally, the best moments on screen occur when Kong is there. Preferably, when Kong and another monster are locked in battle. Like Pacific Rim or Jurassic World, the most interesting parts occur when the focus is on the legendary creatures instead of humans’ reaction to seeing something so extraordinary. It’s why monster movies were created: Experiencing something inexplicable and larger than what nature tells us can exist is both scary and electrifying.
Kong: Skull Island uses all of the tools at its disposable, like the arsenal of recognizable creatures audiences will connect with. As a result, it’s a very fun, worthwhile movie, but it still has plenty of flaws. The best way to think about Skull Island is to compare it to other contemporary takes on the genre. Some good examples would be Deep Blue Sea or Anaconda. The theme of characters being picked off one-by-one in a number of gruesome scenarios, like in those movies, gets boring and monotonous pretty quickly.
The acting is also questionable. There are attempts at accents that don’t come across very well, exaggerated motions that feel funny and out of place, and the over exaggeration from almost every key player is noticeable. It can be distracting at times, but that’s a secondary issue when the dialogue is brought into play. Skull Island is not a well-written movie. There are some clever moments that occur sporadically, but the script is noticeably weak and it deters from where the rest of the film succeeds.
All of which, however, brings up a very interesting facet of the film that I noticed while watching. Almost from the very beginning of the movie until the very end, it’s almost painstakingly clear Skull Island wasn’t made for a Western audience in mind.
This is a global film
Legendary Pictures made Kong: Skull Island in collaboration with Tencent Pictures, a studio you may have heard of. In November, Tencent Pictures announced it was going to invest $295 million into film production. The studio is in its infancy — launching just over a year ago — but it’s already become a well-known name for taking on projects like Skull Island and the upcoming Pacific Rim sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising. It’s pretty obvious why, too. The East Asian market wants blockbusters — as seen from the profit films like Pacific Rim and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story made overseas — and Tencent Pictures wants to corner it.
What does that have to do with Skull Island? From the very beginning of the film there are two very notable aspects. The first is that dialogue was sacrificed in favor of visual effects and the second, perhaps the most important, is that the Americans are villains. Kong: Skull Island is an anti-war movie and the Americans are the bad guys. They’re invading Kong’s home the same way they invaded Vietnam. They’re blood hungry, and would rather kill anything that gets in their way than find another solution.
In most action movies, specifically during the Regan-era, the Americans are the heroes. They’re invading communist countries (usually Russia) or areas thwarted by terrorism (in the Middle East). It’s always been an American narrative, but Skull Island is a movie that reminds its audience Americans aren’t always the heroes. In fact, it argues, they can often times be the villains.
It’s an interesting part of the film that, while perhaps a subject matter suited best for an opinion piece, is worth bringing up because it influences the film in its entirety.
Kong: Skull Island gets what so many monster movies before it get wrong: There is humanity in the creatures, even if they can seem gigantic and monstrous at first. Vogt-Roberts understands what type of movie he’s trying to create, and succeeds in pulling that off. Despite Skull Island being riddled with flaws, it’s pretty hard not to have a smile on your face when Kong is on screen.
Should I stick around after the credits?