It’s been 12 years since the last King Kong film. Peter Jackson’s 2005 film is a remake of the classic 1933 story of a giant ape who falls for a woman and ends up meeting an unfortunate demise. Skull Island takes a break from this plot to tell a unique tale using elements from the original story. This isn’t the first time Kong has deviated from the usual story of course, with one example being TOHO’s King Kong Escapes where he battles a mechanized version of himself. Skull Island brings an ensemble cast to the titular setting for an adventure that feels both familiar and new. It lacks enough quality writing to call it a “great” film, but it’s still an enjoyable, fun trek.
The primary reason why people would come to watch this film is to see the title character in action. Kong himself doesn’t disappoint. The sequence with him taking out the helicopters was excellent and rivals Godzilla’s grand airport entrance in the 2014 film. The music going silent when the tree struck the first helicopter changed the mood drastically, and as one by one each helicopter was destroyed the viewer got a sense of how ferocious Kong was. This is his most violent portrayal yet, and in this early scene the viewer actually begins to think that Kong might actually be bad in this one. The story smartly destroys that thought later on. The writing perfectly balances Kong’s gentleness with monstrous ferocity.
Again, his big scene with taking down the helicopters was incredible. It featured some of the best cinematography and editing ever in a monster movie. It’s actually a shame that the very first scene in the film featured a full face shot of Kong, because the helicopter sequence later on would have been a much better way to first show the character. Kong commands a presence every time he’s on screen, and the film features him a lot, which is a nice change of pace from monster films hiding the beast for extended periods of time.
Like in the previous King Kong films, Skull Island is home to many dangerous creatures. Unlike the previous films, the creatures in this film aren’t ones we’d find in a book. Instead, they’re either abnormally giant (the spider) or completely brand new, such as the Skullcrawlers. The creatures are used to great effect. The spider sequence was very well done (it features one of the creepiest deaths in a monster movie) and how the characters managed to overcome it was pretty smart. There’s even a giant octopus which Kong battles. (It reminds the viewer of his encounter with another giant octopus in the original King Kong vs. Godzilla.) The Skullcrawlers are the film’s primary antagonists, and they are really well utilized. They’re genuinely creepy and also command a presence. (The quick death scene of a character turning around only to be chomped by a Skullcrawler was something straight out of a horror film.)
Of course, the climax couldn’t feature Kong simply taking on a bunch of little creatures. The final battle featured a giant Skullcrawler. It got some quality buildup beforehand, and it doesn’t disappoint. It takes what made the little ones creepy and amplifies it. The fight was very well done. The battle is brutal, the setting is used to great effect, and above all else – it’s satisfying. There are no extended cutaways, there are some surprises, and it’s just fun to watch as a moviegoer and as a longtime kaiju fan.
The main thing the story suffers from is an unnecessarily light tone. There is some seriousness to the atmosphere, namely when the music stops when that tree struck the helicopter. Despite scenes like that the story appears more on the light-hearted side at times. John C. Reilly’s character for example kinda takes the viewer out of the realism at times with his dialogue. With horrific deaths taking place on an unknown setting, it seems like the overall atmosphere should be consistently more serious than what it is. Perhaps the idea was to differentiate itself from Godzilla, since that film was completely series from beginning to end. This is not to say Skull Island is a comedy, because it isn’t. A more serious tone throughout just could have been better.
A rather big drawback is that the Island natives don’t really do anything in this film. It felt like they were just there for tradition’s sake. (They barely do anything other than stare and nod.) An additional 10 minutes could have been added to explain more about their relationship to Kong and the fascinating backstory only briefly mentioned. Moving on to the characters, the film features a cast with quite a few familiar names. Just about all of them are fun to watch. (It could be a fun game counting how many zoom-ins they give Samuel L. Jackson.) Ultimately though, there’s no standout performance. Maybe it’s assumed that simply having these big name actors on screen is good enough. (We have Tom Hiddleston grabbing a sword and slashing like a samurai.) The characters needed to be fleshed out just a little bit more.
The pacing is solid. Some of the early scenes on the boat were a little on the boring side, but it doesn’t take too long for the characters to arrive on the Island. There’s just the right amount of Kong scenes and humans, whether the latter be talking or running away from another creature. The soundtrack has some great moments. There’s also some classic music thrown in the mix, being set in the 70’s. This is used to great effect in the helicopter sequence.
Overall, Kong: Skull Island is a worthy addition to the large catalog of monster movies. Director Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts’ vision of Kong is truly special. The ape steals the show, having the perfect balance of being the kind creature viewers have come to know and displaying monstrous ferocity. If Kong had a reputation of being on the weaker side before, this film changes that. The other creatures are really cool to watch, especially the Skullcrawlers. The big one made for an excellent final boss, with the actual battle being a satisfying finale to the story. The characters aren’t bad. They’re fun to watch, and are given enough personality to keep them from being dry. Still, they could have used just a bit more development. Some of the lighter elements and humor didn’t work, but they don’t ruin what is Kong’s most explosive film yet.