4 hours before showtime, and I’m jotting down a few quick, errant and initial impressions, based on little besides an IMDB page and a handful of trailers. I am finally seeing Kong: Skull Island today (the “finally” an indicator of the kind of absurdly difficult process it has been, an almost Sisyphean process in service of my desperate scramble to see it for free, because free is always the right price) and I want to do a little bit of light bookkeeping, let’s call it, for anyone who just wants the real gristle of the thing-the plot synopsis and that fun stuff. So here we go! The first paragraph (excluding this one, which for our purposes doesn’t count) will be me on a very small soap box for a very short period of time, I promise. The second will be me geeking out, just a tiny bit, about certain members of the cast. Which ones? See you in paragraph two. From paragraph three on, we’re in the clear. All plot, all the time!
But first, my soapbox, and I promise, it’s small, like hotel decorative soap small, but man, do I take umbrage with Brie Larson’s beachy waves. This is a trope in action movies that makes me bonkers-women a) keeping their hair down when it would make absolute sense to pull it back in a ponytail, and b) that same hair looking like curling irons are absolutely de rigeur for jungle travel. I’m not holding this against Kong: Skull Island-I’m holding it against ALL action movies. It’s going to drive me bananas (pun very intentional), but I will persevere.
And now for some light-core cast nerding. I imagine most people are jazzed by the loud and clear Marvel representation in this movie, but I am losing my mind over seeing Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars and Dr. Steve Brule in any blockbuster film, let alone together. I have a feeling that Marc Evan Jackson (the previously alluded to Marshall on Mars, for the uninitiated) is a minor character, but I don’t care. His deadpan improves literally everything he touches. And it’s going to be very difficult for me to separate John C. Reilly from Steve Brule, but I promise, I’ll try like hell.
Great, those things out of the way, welcome to paragraph three. I can’t help but wondering how I would have felt about the movie if I were unaware of its loudly writ influences. This movie is going to make enough bank for its producers to swim, Scrooge McDuck style through rooms full of money, and that will be in large part due to an audience that has no experience with Apocalypse Now or Dr. Strangelove. For them, I imagine this movie will be a discovery. They are not bad movies to take your cues from, and I have a genuine appreciation and respect for loudly projecting your influences; Kong: Skull Island dances on the line of being derivative of them.
There is a plot, though it makes very little logical sense. John Goodman (patron saint of everything; he managed to rescue some exceedingly clunky dialogue by virtue of just being John Goodman) seems to be some sort of government sponsored cryptozoologist on an Ahab like mission to find Kong. Sam Jackson is his military escort, Tom Hiddleston is his tracker, and Brie Larson is a photographer who’s there too for some reason. The “getting the band together” elements truly don’t matter that much. They serve two purposes; one, for forward propulsion and two, to help cram in as many 70’s era classic rock songs as possible. When we get to the island, our intrepid heroes meet up with John C. Reilly, who has been stranded there since World War II, and knows the ropes. Sam Jackson, embittered that Kong took out several of his men while flailing at the helicopters devolves into Kurtz from Apocalypse Now crossbred with Quint (the DNA of Jaws is there, as well, for those who know where to look).
The kindest reading of the movie is that the plot is largely unimportant. It is a vehicle to see some giant monsters smash some stuff, and in that regard, mission accomplished. The visuals are pretty damn great; in particular, a sequence where a giant daddy longleggers legs are indistinguishable from bamboo stalks, is striking. And too, the acting is above reproach. Sam Jackson, John C. Reilly, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, they are all exemplary (Sam Jackson works wonders with a clunky monologue about Icarus-he takes coal and turns it into diamonds). Jason Mitchell brings genuine pathos and should probably star in everything from now on, and Corey Hawkins imbues a stereotypical nerd role with warmth and humor.
The writing, if you are there for that, is rather ham-fisted. Background information is delivered in scene that may as well flash “Expository” in giant, Batman style word balloons across the screen. There is nothing subtle about this movie (see: the repeated cuts to a Nixon bobble head as the helicopters are crashing). And while there is no denying that certain things look incredibly cool, there is a general lack of cohesion. What I am about to say will land as insult or praise, depending on the individual reader-understand that I mean it only as fact. There were a number of moments reminiscent of the Zach Snyder school of film making. This isn’t inherently bad; trading substance for style is a bargain many have struck and will continue to strike.
Strangely, in a movie about an enormous ape and his long raging battle with weird, biped dinosaur things, my largest credibility issues were more of the minute things. In one sequence, John C. Reilly throws a sword to a running T. Hidds, who catches is without chopping off any of his fingers. John Goodman claims that if the monsters on Skull Island (which is an island that is claimed to be both “completely undiscovered and unknown” and “mythological”-bad news writers, it can’t be both) aren’t eradicated, they’ll take over the earth-but what? Why wouldn’t they have done so already, or at least spread past Skull Island?
All art is subjective, and what any one viewer takes from it is going to differ severely from person to person. Some movies are bad from every angle (Tommy Wiseau proved that pretty unequivocally). “Skull Island” isn’t bad at all. There will be an audience that loves it. Just know which movie you are going to see-an underwhelming homage, or a fun and visual giant monster epic.