By: Joshua Howe
When you’re creating a new cinematic universe, or even just setting up a couple films to eventually cross over, the initial, most necessary step to take is setting up a consistent tone. Just look at the Big Bad of cinematic universes, the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Those films all follow a similar structure as well as tone. They’re all serious to a degree, but have lots of room for humour and light moments. They are the films that feel most like comic books—they don’t take themselves too seriously and get extremely dark, but they are providing stories that aren’t just laughable fluff.
Even DC’s films have a consistent tone. They took the grittier, darker approach that Marvel strayed away from. Due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, DC entirely bought in to the idea that audiences want to see their heroes through a tortured, realistic lens.
Enter Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla back in 2014. It is entirely serious, with a plot centered on the idea of man trying to control and combat forces of nature. There are no light-hearted moments, no jokes, no poking fun at monsters or dismissing the destructive power of Godzilla. The tone of Edwards’ film is dark and brooding, serious and intense.
In 2020, Godzilla is set to engage—supposedly in glorious CGI combat—with fellow monster King Kong.
And that’s the first of many problems with Kong: Skull Island—the tone is completely off from that of Godzilla. Sure, as directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, there are moments of action and suspense similar to Edwards’ flick, but the tone of this film jumps up and down like a kangaroo in a bouncy castle. How can these two films cross over successfully when one is so starkly serious and the other so ludicrously flippant?
Kong’s issues lie almost wholly in the script. Despite getting three writers in on it (including the talented Dan Gilroy), the dialogue begins at a mediocre standard, and then quickly devolves into cheesy—and sometimes downright hilarious—quips. No character is safe from this, least of all poor Samuel L. Jackson, who has so many ridiculous lines that after we exited the theatre my friend said, “You know, I think the screenwriters just sat down and asked each other, ‘What is everything you’ve ever wanted to hear Sam Jackson say?’”
Let me give you some examples of dialogue, without context. And don’t worry, none of these spoil anything (although, this is not a movie that will surprise you in any fashion):
Jackson’s character to Brie Larson’s character: “Bitch, please!”
John C. Reilly’s character: “Sounds like a bird. But it’s a fuckin’ ant.”
Jackson’s character: “Hold on to your butts!”
Yes, that’s right. They made Sam Jackson say one of his lines from Jurassic Park.
Arguably worse than the dialogue are the characters themselves—each and every one of them are thinner than a Kardashian selfie printed on rice paper—and yet the film acts as though it wants the audience to care about them. Each character is given one skill that defines them, and we learn nothing else.
Brie Larson’s character is a photographer. Tom Hiddleston’s character is a tracker who, for some unexplained reason, can fight expertly with anything even remotely resembling a weapon, including pool cues. Jackson’s character kills things and wants nothing more than to kill things.
These are our main characters.
And to those who will make the argument that this is a monster movie and so we don’t need to care about the human characters, I rebut with this: do you like good movies? Good movies have good human characters. Do you like good monster movies? Good monster movies have good human characters.
That is also the largest issue with 2014’s Godzilla—the characters are dull. It’s not that the acting is poor, it’s just that the script doesn’t give them much to do. And so, as an audience, we lose interest. We need strong human characters in monster flicks because the monsters can’t carry the movie themselves. Godzilla and Kong don’t speak, they don’t emote. They’re forces of nature. They are on screen to destroy things and look tremendously impressive.
Look at the original Godzilla, which came out in 1954. That film contains a monster destroying Tokyo and, yes, that’s the movie’s most famous scene, but most of the film is spent with human characters. These characters are fascinating because they have agendas, because they have desires and plans of their own that do not solely rely on the majesty of Godzilla’s presence. This film had something to say, it had themes and messages revolving around the terror of the atomic bombings that were still recent in the minds of most Japanese people.
But the Hollywood versions of these movies that we get today? They’re purely about Michael Bay-level spectacle and the excitement that comes with watching mindless, larger-than-life destruction.
There are a few other less potent things that weaken the film as well: there’s an obligatory scene in which Larson’s character touches Kong because, well, because all the other Kong films have that scene; there’s several Kong ex machinas, in which Kong shows up out of nowhere to save our characters’ lives; there’s an unhealthy amount of slow-motion shots of helicopters; and before nearly every death that takes place in the film there is a brief moment allotted for said character to make a remark that is always some version of, “Oh dear!”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are two things that make this movie worth watching: John C. Reilly’s performance and Kong himself.
It sure seems like Reilly is the only one who recognizes that he is in a film that’s going off the rails in terms of plot and dialogue. While all of the other actors do their best to sell their putrid lines with intensity and solemnity, Reilly is far more free-flowing with his character and actually looks like he’s having a fun time.
He is also the only one in the movie who can make the humour work. There are several moments where he is supposed to be funny and, to his credit, a lot of those times he is. In all other parts of the movie, however, the humour falls flat—there are far more unintentionally hilarious scenes than intentionally hilarious scenes.
As for Kong, that’s who this movie is about, and thank goodness he shows up to play. The CGI on Kong looks excellent, and whenever he is obliterating helicopters or smashing skull-crawlers, that’s when you can momentarily forget the lameness of the human characters. His scenes are energetic and fun, and the third act throw-down is worth seeing.
I can’t say that it’s worth paying theatre price just to see Kong’s scenes, since the majority of the film consists of spending time with the boring human characters, but I can say that when that third act fight shows up on YouTube, I’ll be watching the hell out of it over and over.
In the end, Kong: Skull Island falls into the rather sad category of forgettable monster flicks. If you’re just looking to get away for a couple of hours and turn your brain off while watching a bunch of CGI monsters flail about, then you will probably enjoy yourself. But if you’re looking for a strong film that knows how to tackle both the elements of creating memorable characters and providing an enticing story, you might just want to think twice about braving the storm to make your way to Skull Island.