This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Alex Storm’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I was actually expecting a lot worse from Kong: Skull Island, the way I had heard people talking about it and the trailers didn't make it sound super appealing. I went in thinking it was going to be a bland mess of a film that was more concerned with setting up a big monster movie franchise than being a coherent flick. But honestly I kind of feel like this movie is Jurassic Park the Lost World done better, not necessarily great but better than it had any right to be.
The best parts of this movie are the cinematography and the effects, this is a very beautifully crafted visual movie. Every shot is framed at really dynamic and energized angles which not only help show off the wonderful scenery but also some spectacular action. The movie has a very vibrant and stylized color scheme but not in an obnoxious way, in a way that makes everything really pop out and pleasing to look at.
The titular Skull Island is the real star of the show and it has a magnificent presence. Every backdrop we see looks so detailed and expansive with a lot of surprisingly varied environments. The monsters on the island as well are all wonderful to look at as well, they all look like they came from Fantastic Beasts and you are always looking forward to what new designs they'll come up with whether they're dangerous or not. Sadly that's all the film has going for it that's spectacular, everything else is just generally pretty decent at best.
The characters in particular are a pretty mixed bag especially since there are so many of them that it's hard to get invested in all of them. It's kind of the same problem I had with Suicide Squad, they all have distinct and memorable personalities and the actors portraying them all are doing their damnedest, but the fact that there's so many of them leaves a lot to be desired in the way of character development. What makes it better than Suicide Squad though is genre, this is a monster movie as opposed to a superhero movie so there's a comparatively different expectation one should have for the depth of the main characters which I'd say this movie meets in some characters more than others.
Some of the more standout roles include Samuel L. Jackson as a Vietnam War veteran who refuses to let the war go and John C. Riley as a World War 2 soldier who got stranded on the island. Both of them bring a lot of legitimacy to their roles, Jackson does a great job keeping his obsession with killing Kong as revenge for his men subtle as he justifies it in terms as Vietnam soldier would probably use while Riley brings a very nice emotional depth to his character as he talks about a fellow solider he was stranded with as a brother and how he's almost content knowing he may or may not have gotten off the island in his life. In fact the subplot about how he and the other soldier, who was Japanese and thus making them on opposing sides, became friends while surviving on the island sounds like a plot good enough for it's own movie and I'm secretly hoping against hope we get a prequel movie expanding on that.
The other characters are pretty serviceable but not all of them are necessary. Like I get that there's a lot of soldiers since this is a military operation but it you could have trimmed at least two of the soldiers and two of the scientists who contribute absolutely nothing and I think this movie would feel a lot less crowded. Also they attempt to make Tom Hiddleston an action hero and god bless him he's trying but he just looks absolutely ridiculous and I honestly think he shouldn't have been in the movie at all.
Which brings us to Kong who is arguably the most important character: he's okay. We get an interesting new perspective on Kong in this movie, how instead of feared by the natives of this island he's actually worshipped as a benevolent protector to them and it's clear that Kong has no malicious intent and will go out of his way to ensure the safety of the inhabitants of the island. It's a neat idea but there's only one scene of Kong being benevolent towards another island creature to show that, everything else is exposited to us and it kind of makes the one scene where the humans try connecting to him feel pretty hollow in comparisons to other Kong movies that try that kind of thing. Still though when Kong is fighting it is glorious, this is definitely one of the toughest incarnations of this giant ape ever.
The story's pretty simple as a "we gotta get to the safe zone" narrative, again it's more of an excuse plot to show off the island's beautiful scenery but it does a good job at justifying why the characters are on the move especially since we see the island from the perspective of two groups, one encountering a lot more of the tranquil side of the island while the other is at conflict with a lot of the more violent side of it leading to an almost subtle idealogical divide between the two sides. In fact this whole movie seems to want to be a commentary on the Vietnam War; besides the fact that it's set at the tail end of the Vietnam War the main conflict of the movie comes from Samuel L. Jackson trying to stir up conflict where none really exists. His efforts to destroy Kong out of revenge not only threaten the lives of the soldiers he's trying to protect but also the indigenous people of the island as he's ultimately doing more harm than good. It's not a mind-blowing allegory, what I just described is basically all there is to it, but it's handled in a believable manner and is not as preachy as it could have been so it gets some points.
The one thing I really didn't care for in this movie is the soundtrack. It's definitely an appropriate soundtrack for the time period but it can be really obnoxious by inserting itself into places where it doesn't need to be. Like for the first half of the movie it feels like it starts and stops every five minutes and it really kills the mood.
Also I don't know how big a problem this'll be for other people but this movie doesn't have a lot of Kong fighting other monsters, it's mostly the humans fighting or befriending the local wildlife. I'd compare it to the 2014 Godzilla, which this movie takes place in the same universe in, but it does actually have the title monster more in the movie than that movie. But there's only two major action scenes with Kong, one where he's attacking the main character's helicopters and one at the end where he's fighting a giant lizard monster, otherwise it's just Kong kinda moseying around the island and maybe squashing a comparatvely smaller monster beneath his foot. Frankly though, like the 2014 Godzilla, the final fight with the giant lizard monster almost makes up for it, it is a fantastic fight. I will also give this movie points for killing off some of the more big name actors like John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson and leaving a lot of the unknown actors survive, that was a pretty ballsy move.
The reason I compared this to Jurassic Park the Lost World is because I get a similar vibe from the two: a big expendable cast with some standout personalities heading to an island of impossible and giant creatures under the pretense of a scientific study gone wrong, the group divided over having different priorities leading to one surviving and the other getting all but destroyed. I think it's better because the characters are generally a lot more competent and you end up rooting for them more than the ones in Lost World. Not to mention they do manage to make the island a worthy spectacle without diminishing the character's struggle.
All in all I'm very pleasantly surprised by this movie. Is it the best King Kong movie? No, not at all, but it is a good King Kong movie and definitely a very fun monster movie. I'm sure I'll be in the minority about this but I'm genuinely looking forward to this new giant monster movie universe Warner Brothers is constructing.