With, as previously discussed, practically every major studio working towards their own shared universe, Legendary Pictures (accompanied by their distribution partners, Warner Bros) step up to the plate to deliver the difficult second album in what I understand is now referred to as the “Monsterverse” with Kong: Skull Island, bringing the legendary Kong into the world inhabited by Godzilla and, apparently, various other very large beasties keen to beat the crap out of each other.
The basic setup is pretty familiar – an expedition travels to a mysterious lost island shrouded in storms, ending up encountering an unknown tribe and a world filled with giant beasties, dominated by the titular Kong, a massive ape who apparently sits at the top of the island’s hierarchy. This time, the setting is the early seventies (1973, to be exact), just as the US is unceremoniously withdrawing from Vietnam, and a helicopter squadron is recruited to carry an expedition to this hitherto unknown island. Led by John Goodman’s Bill Randa, a leading figure in the Monarch organisation established in the earlier Godzilla movie, the team includes a former soldier turned tracker and an attractive female photojournalist looking for her next big scoop.
If none of that sounds too original, then, congratulations, you’ve pretty much nailed one of the problems with the movie. Very little about it feels in any way new. Not always that bad, admittedly – we’ve all seen startlingly unoriginal movies that nevertheless turn out to be entertaining – but it’s not a particularly promising start.
Kong: Skull Island, to be fair, does quite a lot of things right. For one thing, it has a genuinely impressive cast. Tom Hiddleston takes point as the team tracker, with the aforementioned John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson as the leaders of the scientific expedition and the military escort respectively. Brie Larson plays the photojournalist and John C Reilly is his usual reliable self as a former WW2 pilot who crashed there during the war and, with three decades of experience on the island, is able to give the team the lowdown on the goings-on there. The problem, and this is really where the film falls down badly, is that none of these highly capable actors are given much to work with over the course of the film. The characters are thinly drawn, to put it mildly and, for the most part, end up being pretty unmemorable despite reasonably good performances.
The post-Vietnam setting is intelligently chosen. Satellite imagery was in its infancy, with the first of the US Landsat satellites launched the previous year, making it a very plausible time frame for the discovery of a hitherto unknown remote island. The withdrawal from Vietnam, and the anger and resentment that it produced in many military officers, are used to drive certain actions taken by the soldiers in the course of the film that, under other circumstances, could potentially be seen as irrational. There are some good choices made by the filmmakers here.
The look of the film works well. The Vietnam era aesthetic lends itself well to a monster movie, with many genuinely pretty shots, and the creature designs for the various beasties inhabiting the island are good, with the Skullcrawlers having a particularly unusual look that nevertheless works well.
And then there’s Kong himself. Far larger than any western version of the character seen previously (and he’s specifically identified as a juvenile, suggesting that a considerably larger version will be facing off against Godzilla next time out), he instantly demands attention whenever he appears and, in the capable hands of motion capture specialists Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell, arguably gets more characterisation than any of the other characters. He does, however, get considerably less screentime than the previous incarnations, as he wanders the island, appearing when the narrative demands, which is actually a bit of a shame. He’s also more explicitly benevolent in this movie than previous versions have been, generally acting as a protector towards the inhabitants of the island unless provoked (by, say, dropping seismic charges all over the island).
On the whole, while it does have its positives, Kong: Skull Island feels like a badly missed opportunity. A lot of the choices made during development are smart, the title character is impressive, the cast is far better than it deserves and, other than the appearance of the Monarch agency and a by-now-obligatory post-credit scene, pleasantly little time is spent in building the larger shared universe. Somewhere in here, there’s a genuinely good movie. Unfortunately, the one we got is near-fatally hampered by stereotypical and unmemorable characters. If their Monsterverse is going to survive, Legendary are going to have to seriously up their game.
And, really, “Monsterverse” is the best they could do? For one thing, it’s not exactly overly distinct from what’s going on at Universal, whose offering is called, with a spectacular lack of imagination, the “Universal Monsters” shared universe. Secondly, it’s, well, boring. C’mon, guys, you had the far cooler “Kaijuverse” just sitting there on a plate, waiting for you to pick it up, and you ignored it. Shame on you…