Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts || Produced by: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Alex Garcia
Screenplay by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly || Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkens, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
Music by: Henry Jackman || Cinematography: Larry Fong || Edited by: Richard Pearson || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 118 minutes
Hollywood has made recruiting critically acclaimed, low-budget, independent filmmakers its bread and butter this past decade. From Colin Trevorrow to Jon Favreau to Jon Watts to Patty Jenkins to Ryan Coogler to James Gunn, modern American blockbusters have lived and died on talented but inexperienced directors’ ability to transition to the big leagues in a moment’s notice, going from projects like Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, budget = $750,000) to Jurassic World (2015, budget = $150 million) or from Monster (2003, budget = $8 million) to Wonder Woman (2017, budget =$120 million). Professional athlete prospects have their work cut out for them in college, but at least talents like Peyton Manning or Stephen Curry had experience on national stages before they started cashing paychecks for their work.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, previously known for his quaint 2013 indie-drama, Kings of Summer (budget = $1.4 million), is only the latest example of this phenomenon. If Skull Island’s critical reviews and early box office success are any indication, the Detroit native may have a better knack for explosive, big-budget spectacle than most of his peers. Unlike say, Gareth Edwards (another small-timer who transitioned from the likes of Monsters [2010, budget =$500,000] to Godzilla [2014, budget = $160 million]), Vogt-Roberts embraces the lowbrow, almost childlike schlock of classical monster-movies; the man acknowledges he was hired to make a blockbuster action film, not a thematic mood piece or introspective drama. Though Skull Island (aka Kong: Skull Island, henceforth, KSI) makes plentiful homages to its post-Vietnam War 1970s setting and is seemingly in love with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) at times, Vogt-Roberts places his monsters front and center with respect to narrative, characters, and tone.
While Peter Jackson’s memorable King Kong (2005) remake is arguably a better overall film, KSI is far more entertaining and a better monster-movie than both it and Edwards’ Godzilla reboot. I stress that I enjoyed the latter more than most G-Man fans, those who couldn’t decide whether they wanted the rock ’em/sock ’em action of the Showa Era (1954-1975) or the darker, violent creature-features of the Heisei Era (1984-1995), but I also admit that an entire act of 2014’s Godzilla was flawed. That film placed too much emphasis on its well acted, but bland and uninteresting characters (e.g. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen), and didn’t even introduce the threat of Godzilla until its midpoint.
KSI has none of those problems given its overwhelming focus on FX and monster battles; it is further superior to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) in that its cinematography maintains an anthropocentric perspective, which is the most important attribute that Edwards’ film nailed. As fun as Pacific Rim was, its cartoonish, relentless combat grew desensitizing over time, and del Toro filmed it more like a human boxing match than a titanic showdown between gargantuan monsters. Though SKI’s human cast is strictly utilitarian, its characters are used appropriately to pace the film, frame combat, and intensify action sequences from a vulnerable human perspective. In addition to Vogt-Roberts’ affection for Vietnam War motifs, the film doubles down on immersive techniques like first-person point-of-view shots and effective slow-motion sequences before terrifying monster ambushes. Everything is helped by the movie’s chipper 1970s soundtrack, which further emphasizes the period mood.
Another fundamental screenwriting and editing strength KSI has over both Edward’s 2014 Godzilla and Guillermo del Toro’s kaiju/jaeger love-letter is one filmmaking element I always fawn over, much to my readers’ chagrin: Pacing. This gorilla ends credits at just under two hours — a sweet spot for most Hollywood blockbusters — and flows from disparate groups of characters and set-pieces with match cuts that rival those in Neighboring Sounds (2012). Sometimes these edits are intra-scene transitions used for dark comedy, such as when a helicopter gunner falling into Kong’s mouth smash-cuts into another character munching on a grilled cheese sandwich (an oldie, but a goodie); others are more subtle, such as a dolly-in to a night sky from one group of characters’ perspective, which then dollies out — presumably with an invisible edit — to another group of humans.
Elsewhere, editor Richard Pearson mixes and matches Larry Fong’s gorgeous wide shots with Vogt-Robert’s memorable choreography to stage everything from startling monster ambushes to action-packed firefights to amusing side-character banter. Some of these creative set-pieces feature zero dialogue, such as Toby Kebbell’s impromptu encounter with Kong and a monstrous kraken.
KSI’s few problems have to do, unsurprisingly, with aspects of its human cast. Though the cast is well used (as in, not overused) for the most part, certain character death sequences overplay their hand by trying to manipulate audience emotion or drama, when most of the time these characters are best disposed of as a joke or violent punchline. Some characters are entirely unnecessary, such as Chinese actress Jing Tian, whose greatest impact on the story is opening a can of SPAM, and the obligatory indigenous villagers of the eponymous Skull Island. The latter seem almost too big a political risk in this day and age, and they add nothing of substance to the script besides consuming valuable screentime. Jing, on the other hand, struggles with her few English lines and poor chemistry with Corey Hawkins, though I’m sure her presence secured enough funding from the Chinese Wanda Group investors of Legendary Pictures.
Skull Island is successful because it understands what it is, what its audience wants, and makes appropriate use of its expensive budget and name-brand stars. In addition to its terrific FX, beautiful Hawaiian location-photography, and creative monster designs, relative newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly allow their human faces to support, rather than overwhelm, their money-shots. Skull Island is far more action-packed than Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, more dynamic and polished than Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, less indulgent than Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and overlooking a few brief moments, doesn’t try to manufacture melodrama or force humor like The Fast and the Furious (2001-present) or various comic book franchises. All in all, Skull Island achieves the loftiest compliments of Hollywood popcorn blockbusters by being relentlessly entertaining, respecting established genre formula, and cutting out the worst of extraneous studio bullshit. This monkey business is worth your time.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Jordan Vogt-Roberts and company take time to assemble their pieces, but once the movie hits the titular setting, this blockbuster is a riotous adventure. All set-pieces involving either multiple monsters or just the human characters trying to survive are intense, memorable sequences, particularly the introduction of Kong himself. Skull Island’s cinematography takes numerous cues from 1970s era Vietnam War films as well as various old-school monster franchises to great effect, taking advantage of great location-photography, a strong soundtrack, and great editing.
— However… most of the cast besides Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly are superfluous and their death scenes, pointless, though unlike most comic-book movies, I’d argue that’s by design, here. Jing Tian’s throwaway role is the most wasteful.
—> This ape comes RECOMMENDED.
? So, when do we get King Kong vs. Godzilla? Is it before or after Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and/or Rodan? Tell me, now.