Kong: Skull Island is an unbalanced amalgamation of B-Movie schlock and hyper-budget blockbuster special effects (est. $185M). It teems with A-List stars searching vainly for a place to die so they don’t have to embarrass themselves any longer. The plot makes some sense, but the specific beats that move it from scene to scene are fairly nonsensical. And like clockwork, we can’t go five minutes without someone getting eaten, something exploding / catching on fire, or the titular great ape fighting something. The film especially founders tonally, where it can’t quite decide how serious it should be. Even the gigantic action set pieces are bizarre and uneven – sometimes incredibly realistic and other times practically cartoons. At its best, Kong: Skull Island is an expensive farce; the most fun you can have is wondering aloud what possessed so many people to light so much money on fire in such a strange way. At its worst, it is a hum-drum reiteration of better movies without anything particular noteworthy about it at all.
These are some of the things involving a large ape that are better than Kong: Skull Island: King Kong (1933), King Kong (2005), Donkey Kong Country, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Mighty Joe Young (1998), King Homer (the segment from The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror III), and that one time a woman answered a final Jeopardy question about Sonic the Hedgehog with, “Who is Dankey Kang?” (even though it is fake).
The Simpsons version of Kong is especially relevant, as it also contains a gas sequence, people standing near the mouth of a large sleeping ape, and nonsensical interactions with the natives. Unfortunately, Skull Island isn’t quite as accomplished as this 7-minute cartoon. Finally, during the masturbatory flyover of Skull Island at the beginning, I couldn’t help but thinking I’d rather be going to Candy Apple Island (which also contains apes, but they’re not so big).
The plot to Kong: Skull Island is mercifully simple: a dude obsessed with monsters (John Goodman) uses the Cold War and the end of the Vietnam War as excuses to investigate an island “perpetually hidden by a circular storm cell” called Skull Island (which totally makes sense). DRINK BUDWEISER. In a hint of the stupidity of the film, the island has always been known as “Skull Island”, and vaguely resembles a skull from recent satellite images. Did you catch that? DRINK BUDWEISER. Cultures without a satellite view of the island called it “Skull”. And it looks like a Skull. Afterwards. DRINK BUDWEISER.
Anyway, of course they go to the island, drum up some soldiers (led by Samuel L. Jackson), a guide (Tom Hiddleston), a photo-journalist (Brie Larson), and some scientists (Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian). Upon arrival, they are immediately dominated by Kong. Then, the survivors have to reach the other end of the island in time for the extraction. They meet John C. Riley, who is from World War II. Along the way, monsters.
The comprehensive issue with Kong: Skull Island is its muddled and inconsistent tone. It tries to be serious with ideas about wartime, human superiority, and revenge. It tries to be silly with the marines joking and the entirety of John C. Reilly’s character and everything he does. It tries for realism when repairing a boat, setting up a trap for Kong, and navigating the jungle. It tries for monster movie schlock with the battles, the monsters, and the explosions. It tries for genuine emotion with some relationships, a marine’s letters back home, and John C. Reilly’s back-story. It tries to make characters faceless, dispensable morons by having birds carry them away or a large monster eat them off screen. It is the most tonally haphazard big-budget film I have seen in a long time.
Is it at all possible that the four separate screenwriters (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins) are to blame for this? They never worked on the script at the same time, didn’t really communicate, and made complete passes before the next guy was called in. Could it be that four people had four different ideas about what the appropriate tone was?
While I am harping hard on the tone, it is far from the only consistency issue with Kong: Skull Island. The characters are stupid and forgettable and the performances suggest that the actors’ loved ones are being held hostage. Still, they are all over the place with regards to sincerity. John Goodman hasn’t hammed it up like this since Arachnophobia. John C. Reilly may have been told that this was a Farrelly brothers movie. Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston do a lot of looking off into the distance and kind of pretending to be scared. Samuel L. Jackson’ character in Deep Blue Sea had more depth (and that’s not a nautical pun).
The creatures alternate between realistic and batshit illogical from a biological standpoint. There are some huge water buffalo and an octopus that looks awesome, and the reptilian birds are kind of weird but just fine. Then, there is a gigantic spider that stabs everyone with its legs on accident, which makes absolutely no sense when you watch it. A gigantic stick bug looks fine, though, and actually feels like a real thing. Then, there’s the skullcrawlers (named by John C. Reilly and yukked over in yet another tonally-baffling moment). These are giant not-dinosaurs-but-actually-dinosaurs-except-they-didn’t-want-them-to-be-dinosuars. They have only two legs, a tail, and completely lack arms. When they move or fight or are basically on screen doing anything, they look incredibly stupid.
These guys are the big-bads in the story, and the only real challenge for Kong. The humans manage to kill one in a gigantic ape graveyard by manipulating the rules of time, space, and physics to start fires. Later, Kong fights an extra big one later with a rock, a large tree, and a ship propeller tied to a large anchor chain. That all happens. At one point, Brie Larson falls into Kong’s right hand. Then, for no reason, the giant skullcrawler swallows half of Kong’s right arm. Then, Kong pulls out the creature’s guts, ending the battle. Then, Brie is just still in his hand somehow. The entire climactic battle sequence is A-grade monster movie schlock where nothing really make sense, large things clash, and you’re constantly thinking, “What is going on?”. If the entire movie held this tone, it would be harmless B-Movie entertainment. Since it doesn’t even know what it is, the film is just frustration and idiocy.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that Kong: Skull Island apes off of a number of much better films. As I was watching it, I was pretty sure that I had seen certain shot compositions before, and some action sequences felt familiar. I can’t quite place my finger on it, and I am not going to watch the film again to decipher if it really does lift from other movies, but it felt suspicious at times. I will say I almost had an aneurysm as the film ended with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”, a la Dr. Strangelove.
While we’re at it, the soundtrack of the film is way too try-hard. Like Suicide Squad, it is an over-stuffed collection of 70’s era instantly-recognizable hits. One after the other, for no reason. The songs aren’t bad, they are just so on-the-nose and over-used that it becomes tiring. Some of the songs are also awkwardly diegetic, as 45s or stereos are shoe-horned into the scenes to show that the music is actually playing, even in the depths of the jungle. But then other times, it is clearly just atmospheric. Again, inconsistency reigns.
The only consistency in Kong: Skull Island is its inconsistencies. It is a blockbuster that wants to capture the charm of a B-movie. It looks for thematic weight from Samuel L. Jackson’s character, and frizzy bonkers from John C. Riley’s. It exploits the realistic danger of Kong to inspire grandeur and fear, yet parades a two-legged lizard around and has Brie Larson ignite it with a lighter in slow motion. The examples pummel the audience like marble-sized hail. At first, it seems like it could be fun. Eventually, it just hurts your head.