Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that plays out exactly as expected. Stupid humans go somewhere they shouldn’t and die. Big CGI creatures fight other CGI creatures. Movie stars make the most of a muddled script. A white dude (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) who was grossly unqualified to direct a big budget movie proves to be a tad in over his head, but manages to at least pull off a couple of undeniably powerful shots (such as the repeated framing of Kong against the backdrop of the sun). Hardly anyone stays to watch the post-credits scene setting up the planned Godzilla-King Kong shared cinematic universe.
It is not, as some critics have argued, really, really good. Instead, it is merely serviceable, delivering monster movie thrills and little else despite the script’s strained efforts to invoke Apocalypse Now and metaphorically re-purpose Kong to reflect post-Vietnam anxieties. Even by recent monster movie standards, Skull Island fails to live up to the visual grandeur of The Great Wall, and oddly repeats that movie’s “heroes trapped in the fog” sequence just with less ingenuity.
But, hey, this King Kong does look pretty cool, and no one was expecting this movie to be a masterpiece. It may lack the passion of Peter Jackson’s King Kong and clever story construction of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, but, dangit, Skull Island gives us Kong swinging a giant tree like a baseball bat at the skull of an oncoming lizard-like opponent. If that’s what you want, Skull Island has plenty to offer. If not, here are 7 things you can do to amuse yourself while counting down the minutes until the movie’s over:
1. Imagine Suicide Squad director David Ayer looking at Kong: Skull Island’s consistently on-the-nose usage of pop songs and thinking, “These guys get it.”
Kong: Skull Island’s chief inspiration is Apocalypse Now, with Vietnam War-era soldiers wading upstream in foreign territory in pursuit of a villain (in this case, Kong) who turns out to be something quite different. Plus, the man in charge, Samuel L. Jackson, pretty quickly loses his mind, projecting his “what becomes of the world now that we’ve pulled out of Vietnam?” anxieties onto Kong and the rest of the island’s monsters.
However, Skull Island is also a blockbuster movie which has been released into a post-Guardians of the Galaxy world which means old pop songs are cool again. To be fair, Guardians didn’t invent that, and lots of old Vietnam movies are packed to the brim with soldiers listening to period-specific pop songs. But Skull Island throws them at us with such rapidity during its exposition heavy opening that it quickly recalls Suicide Squad, not just in quantity but also in on-the-nose bluntness, later on giving us CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” during a montage of the characters, um, running through a jungle.
That being said, Skull Island eventually backs off of this heavy-handed approach, resulting in a final soundtrack which isn’t even half the size of Suicide Squad’s. Plus, not all of the songs are completely on-the-nose. Still, Squad’s director David Ayer must feel vindicated because these Skull Island guys? Yeah, they get it.
Oh, btw, bad news for anyone who loved the usage of The Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place” in the Skull Island trailer: it’s not actually in the movie.
2. Picture the befuddled expression on the director’s face when Brie Larson patiently asked if there could be any way for her character to at least once talk to the only other woman in the cast, even if just to say “hello”
This is Brie Larson:
She plays Mason Weaver, a spunky, anti-war photojournalist who bonds with Kong (we know because a single tear drops down her cheek at one point) and seems to think that Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad is a bit of alright. Mostly, she takes lots of pictures, alternates between amazed and amused facial expressions, and has the audacity to pretend like her gorgeously managed hair just comes naturally and hasn’t been fussed over by well-trained hairstylists on set for hours. Seriously, she’s a freakin’ walking shampoo commercial.
This is Tian Jing:
She plays San Lin, a young biologist who doesn’t talk much, serves no real purpose to the story (beyond being a quasi-love interest for Toby Kebbel’s second tier character) and is only really in this movie as the token Chinese character more and more blockbusters feel obligated to provide. Plus, Skull Island’s China-owned financier, Legendary, seems convinced that Tian is the next big thing, first putting her in The Great Wall, now Skull Island and next Pacific Rim 2.
Other than a one-scene secretary at the very beginning, there are no other notable female characters in this movie. Isn’t it crazy, then, that Larson and Jing never really talk to each other? Something, something, something Bechdel test. Considering Larson’s outspoken feminism and idolization of Jane Fonda, one imagines she must of at some point asked if there could be any way for her character to talk to Jing’s character since the simple act of two women talking to each other in a blockbuster is a sad sign of progress. The look of befuddlement on director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ face must have been priceless.
3. Whenever John C. Reilly is on screen take a moment to think back to all of his funnier roles. Then play some of those movies back in your head.
Without question, John C. Reilly, as a downed WWII pilot who has somehow survived on Skull Island for 28 years, has the line of the movie when he faux boasts to the soldiers, “This is a good group of boys, a good group of boys to die together with. Ha-ha, we’re all going to die. You shouldn’t have come here.” He says it in such an ingeniously comedic way that they seem to only recognize his excited tone and not his actual words of warning. It’s a line which only John C. Reilly could deliver in exactly that way, calling to mind his superior comic turns in movies like Walk Hard, Step Brothers and even Boogie Nights. However, Skull Island never quite settles on how serious we should take Reilly’s character, to the point that [spoiler warning] when the closing credits tug at the heart strings with home video footage of Reilly’s character meeting his adult son for the first time and reuniting with the woman he married shortly before leaving for the war there were some around me openly laughing because, wait, isn’t he the comic relief?
It helps, then, to simply stop paying attention to Skull Island in favor of playing back some of your favorite prior Reilly movie moments in your head. Here’s one of mine:
4. Assume that immediately before every one of Tom Hiddleston’s scenes he had just finished asking the director, “What’s my character’s motivation? You can’t keep telling me it’s ‘to look cool’!”
In Skull Island, Tom Hiddleston is doing his best pass at being a roguish hero except he’s British so he immediately seems more sophisticated and nuanced than, say, Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. His character, a former British Special Air Service tracking expert turned mercenary, is said to have been somehow broken by his Vietnam experience, leaving him in search for meaning. He finds it on Skull Island, or at least we assume he does because [spoiler warning] after his first face-to-face with Kong he suddenly decides to stand up to Jackson and save that poor, giant gorilla. Before that point, he had been the calm leader who simply wanted to get everyone to safety, but seemed conflicted.
There’s a hint of an actual character arc there, but what was probably once fully formed in the script either got lost through re-writes or got left on the cutting room floor. As such, most of the time Hiddleston is just there to look cool, serve as the calmer alternative to Jackson’s chaos and be friendly with Larson. It is at least refreshing to see him out from under the Loki wig and serving as the ostensible male lead of a blockbuster.
5. Keep waiting for this to happen to the scuzzy dude sitting behind you every time he makes a weird “I have a boner” noise whenever Brie Larson’s tank top is on screen
Unlike her recent, Twitter-exploding appearance on The One Show, Brie Larson doesn’t wear any low cut, cleavage-revealing tops in Skull Island. Instead, she simply sports a form-fitting tank top, ala Jessica Biel in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alexandra Daddario in San Adreas and Lara Croft in everything. Vogt-Roberts’ camera doesn’t necessarily linger on or overly objectify Larson via the tank top, and, in fact, no one in the movie ever treats her like an object of lust (e.g., there are no cat calls from horny soldiers, Kong’s affection for her never veers into creepy territory). Still, the mere (repeated) sight of Larson in that tank top was enough to inspire the scuzzy dude sitting behind me in the theater last night to make somewhat indecipherable noises which sounded as if he suddenly had a very different idea for a thing he might do to amuse himself while watching the movie (it rhymes with “casturbate”). If this should happen to you too just keep imagining someone doing this to the guy every time he makes that weird noise:
6. Fill in your own WWE color commentary during the main event between Kong and the Giant Skull Crawler
The whole movie builds up to a main event pitting Kong against the Queen Skull Crawler which had been hibernating until the stupid humans started bombing the island to draw out all of the monsters. Luckily, there is nothing anticlimactic about this inevitable knock-down-drag-out rumble between giant gorilla and giant lizard-like creature. It, in more ways than one, actually resembles a WWE wrestling match, even right down to the moment when the good guy is distracted when his girlfriend at ringside (in this case, Larson atop a nearby mountain overlooking the fight) gets hurt and inadvertently turns the tide in the match.
The fight sequence is so entertaining it doesn’t really need any extra juice, but if you find it uninspiring you might spice it up by imagining WWE commentators doing the play-by-play. There is one moment in particular near the end of the fight which mimics the effect of a bad guy chair shot on a good guy whose back was turned. I could imagine Jim Ross having a field day with that.
7. Genuinely laugh at Skull Island’s spin on a familiar action movie trope
[Spoiler Warning] In countless action movies, we’ve seen the moment where a side character gives up his or her own life to give the main characters more time to get away. As such, you could be forgiven for rolling your eyes when one such Skull Island character appears to be playing out this familiar beat. He’s the quirky soldier who has been having his own mini-buddy comedy with the one non-Samuel L. Jackson black soldier, the two engaging in various “man, you crazy” interactions on the outskirts of the movie. Skull Island seems to be paying off this relationship when this soldier just randomly decides to stop running and instead turns himself into a suicide bomber to take out the skull monster bearing down on them, calling back to his friend, “Go on and live your life.”
But then something genuinely hilarious happens: right before the soldier’s grenades go off the monster figures out what’s going on and uses its tail to simply whip this would-be attacker into the air and toward a nearby mountain. Thus, he explodes safely off in the distance. In no way does his self-sacrifice help the situation. I’m not 100% certain the film knows this is as funny as it is. Maybe it would have been more clear if the guy had yelled out “I immediately regret this decision!” while flying through the air. Instead, the aftermath of his death sees his one black friend crying out in despair while everyone else pulls him back and continues fleeing to safety. Still, the set-up and pay-off here is pure comedy gold, making for one moment where you don’t have to go out of your way to amuse yourself to enjoy Skull Island.
What did you think of Kong: Skull Island? Do you think I am being too hard on it? It’s not terrible, after all. Just really muddled. Was there anything else which jumped out at you as being unintentionally or even intentionally funny? Did you wonder how long that “Dear Billy” letter ended up being since everyone kept adding to it? Didn’t Captain Holt’s husband from Brooklyn Nine-Nine deserve a better ending? Let me know what you think in the comments.