Now, more than ever, Hollywood studios are all about movie franchises – not just one sequel after another, but several franchises existing in a larger one, often referred to as a cinematic universe. Studio executives gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on these individual franchises in the hopes that they’ll be commercially successful. Marvel Studios led the charge and has been doing it longer and more successful than anyone else while its rival, DC Entertainment, has had decidedly mixed results.
This hasn’t stopped every studio from trying with Warner Bros. wading into the fray with Godzilla (2014), the first franchise within the MonsterVerse. It was successful enough financially to embolden the studio to go ahead with their second franchise reboot – Kong: Skull Island (2017). Instead of setting it during the 1930s as Peter Jackson’s epic reimagining had done in 2005, the filmmakers decided to set it during the Vietnam War with all sorts of references to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s a nifty idea but does it translate into a decent movie?
Unlike Godzilla, this movie wastes no time introducing the Big Guy in a fast-paced prologue set somewhere in the South Pacific during World War II. Is the purpose of this sequence to establish Kong’s presence in roughly the same geographic neighborhood as Godzilla thereby linking these franchises? The opening credits take us through three decades of history until we reach 1973 and the last days of the Vietnam War.
Bill Randa (John Goodman), a senior government official, and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), a young geologist, fast-talk their way into mounting an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island complete with a military escort. The soldiers were supposed to be going home but their superior officer, Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career military man, is more than happy to take on one more mission.
Since they are venturing into uncharted territory, Randa hires professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former British Special Air Service captain. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an acclaimed photojournalist intrigued by the air of mystery that surrounds the island and finagles her way onto the expedition. Both Conrad and Weaver are outsiders and suspicious of the true nature of this mission, which creates an uneasy bond between them.
This movie makes some odd choices along the way, like the scene where the expedition flies a squadron of helicopters through a dense and difficult storm that surrounds the island but all the tension of this scene is drained by Packard droning on about the Icarus myth. Why? Samuel L. Jackson’s flat delivery is supposed to demonstrate his character’s unflappable nature, I suppose, but it also robs the scene of the white-knuckle intensity that everyone else is experiencing. The establishing shots of the lush island are breathtaking and then the filmmakers ruin the mood by blasting Black Sabbath over the soundtrack a la “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now.
Fortunately, this clumsy moment is disrupted by a Kong attack, captured in agonizing slow motion and then a fantastic shot of the giant ape in front of the setting sun with the helicopters coming at him. Not surprisingly, Kong makes short work of the helicopters in a thrillingly staged sequence as he ruthlessly dispatches these aggressive interlopers on his turf while Packard quietly fumes in anger as Jackson gets to do his best Captain Ahab impression, growling his way through his dialogue while doing his best Kubrickian death stare. You know he will make it his life’s mission to take the giant ape down in retribution for killing several of his men.
As determined as Packard is, Randa is even more obsessed with killing Kong for his own personal reasons that John Goodman chillingly reveals to Packard. Meanwhile, Conrad and Weaver just want to escape the island, alive if possible, but it won’t be easy as they encounter all sorts of creatures – some benign, some very deadly. The movie quickly divides its time between Packard and his men and Conrad and Weaver.
John C. Reilly’s scene-stealing turn as a World War II pilot that crash landed near the island and has been trapped their ever since acts as our grizzled tour guide to this exotic land and its inhabitants while also acting as Skull Island’s equivalent to Dennis Hopper’s gonzo photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. He provides much-welcome levity amidst the CGI workouts and cardboard character stereotypes while also injecting a humanistic energy and vitality that is largely absent from the rest of the movie. To that end, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson aren’t given much to do except gape at amazement at the CGI wonders the filmmakers put in front of them, or grim-faced determination as they run away from another computer generated monster.
I see what the filmmakers are trying to do with Skull Island – fuse the hallucinogenic madness of Apocalypse Now with King Kong (1933), which is admittedly an intriguing idea. That being said, Skull Island comes across more as a great movie pitch that hasn’t been developed any further than that. Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s King Kong, but at least it was a personal statement and a love letter to the original film while Skull Island feels more like franchise building, but I do appreciate the 1970s Vietnam War era setting; it’s just a shame that the filmmakers don’t do more with it than endlessly reference Apocalypse Now and use it as an excuse to play classic rock over the soundtrack at various points. The movie has performed well at the box office so mission accomplished I suppose.