First Thoughts: Skull Island

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

This is a bit of a round-table effort. Dennis starts off and then Sean joins in at the second half…enjoy!

I finally got my butt off the sofa and drove into town to see this movie today…yes, I could have waited until it came out on iTunes, but I wanted the surround sound and the bass of the theater speakers, and I wasn’t disappointed…with the sound.

Was I disappointed with the movie? Yes and no.

Skull Island is a re-telling of the original story. The main plot lines are there, but scrambled about in a way that takes the story in a new direction. OK, let’s suspend disbelief and have some fun here. It sort of reminded me of a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and, well, King Kong, I guess.

The trip to Skull Island was cool, especially the helicopter ride through the storm that forever surrounds the Island. Yeah, sure the usual gang of soldiers, including the ones you know are going to make it and the ones you know are going to die. My son and I managed to predict with 100% accuracy who would make it. Yeah, it was pretty obvious.

John Goodman was good as the businessman/adventurer trying to prove that the world really is hollow and full of monsters. (Is it just me or did he lose a lot of weight?)

Samuel Jackson as the grizzled soldier looking for one last victory to give his life some sort of meaning after being called back home at the conclusion of the Viet Nam war. OK, fine, I can buy his motivation, but a lot of the other soldiers started calling him crazy, but I never got that vibe…he just came across as driven, and seemed to genuinely care about his men.

The cute photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson)…meh…I’m not sure what the point of her character was…Kong seemed to like her, so I suppose she supplied the outlet for his “softer side” to be shown in a couple of “awww shucks” type moments.

John C. Reilly plays Hank Marlow, a WW2 pilot that’s been stranded on the Island for 30 years. He’s more or less the Dennis Hopper character from Apocalypse Now, although not as crazy. In fact, he keep trying to tell people how freakin’ dangerous the island was but nobody would listen to him…or else Sam Jackson kept pushing them on. I think of all the people I would take advice from it would be this guy…he’s survived for three decades, right?

Oh, and why did Shea Whigham’s character decide to kill himself when they were running from the main Skull Crawler? It made no sense whatsoever. His death didn’t even serve a purpose…he was just splatted against a cliff face (while still managing to hold onto the grenades).

OK, Monster Wrap Up:

Giant water buffalo: loved it! Reminded me of a troll with all the grass and weeds growing on it’s back. (Or maybe I’ve been in Norway too long).

Giant Spider: Who doesn’t like a giant spider?

Giant walking-stick bug: Please tell me that wasn’t a little cute puppy noise it made?

Weird birds: Cool enough. Ugly and managed to carry off a guy and dismember him in mid-air, so you gotta respect that.

Giant Ants: These were hinted at but never shown…damnit! Unfair!

Skull Crawlers: WHY?!

Naturally, since Kong is the good guy, we need some sort of antagonist…so meet the Skull Crawlers…big nasty 2 legged monsters from underground that eat everything and provide big fight scenes. I hated them. They ruined things for me…

First: their illogical physical structure (what kind of a two-legged animal walks around on its hands? I’m sure I’m going to regret writing that because somebody will certainly correct me.)

Second: What the hell do these things eat? It would take thousands of those giant water buffalo to maintain their population.

Third: Just a bit too CGI’y for me. I read somewhere that there were 23 million computer controlled hairs on Kong…and the computer rendering was fantastic. But these Skull Crawler things were just too slick.

Fourth: More Kong, less Skull Crawlers!

The final battle ended as expected, and I did enjoy it…I’m not that grumpy of an old man. The people who deserved to be squished by Kong got squished by Kong, so that was satisfying.

Oh, and why does every major movie have to be made with 3-D in mind? It’s distracting! Stop it! I don’t need spider guts splashed on my face for me to enjoy myself.

So, yes, definitely see it…and of course see it in the theater so you can enjoy the sound. It’s a fun ride, with a lot of action, and the monsters steal the show…in fact, after the initial (very exciting) attack on the helicopters, Kong seems almost absent from the film until nearly the very end; but I had fun.

Dennis (March 2017)

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Now, Sean joins in with his $0.02….take it away, Sean!

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Right out of the gate, I have to say it – Skull Island does not suck. I had a decent time watching it in the theater, and I got a pretty good Giant Monster Action fix. But it suffers from some common problems that afflict Hollywood filmmaking these days, so I want to whine about them in a sort of “Cranky Critic’s Corner.” Enter if you dare!

First, let me get the good stuff out of the way: the cast is terrific. I was most impressed with Brie Larson who, given an underwritten “hot babe” part managed to project an interesting personality. I bought it that his woman was an adventurous photo journalist. She also seemed genuinely involved in the fantasy action swirling around her. Very impressive when you consider that on the set it was her, the movie crew, and a green screen. A close second was Tom Hiddleston as the ex-British secret service tracker guy. Part of why I liked his character has to do with his being British. In Hollywood movies macho men of the American variety are often so aggressive they act like clownish teenagers. But a “man’s man” from the U.K. is allowed to be adult. In fact, while this character too is underwritten, the script makes a point to show he is smart and decent enough to avoid knee-jerk violence. Very refreshing. And Tom has the looks and movie star presence to pull it off.

Next up are Samuel L. Jackson as the angry colonel, and John C. Reilly as the stranded American pilot. Both are talented professionals who hit the beats they were asked to hit. The script fleshes out their characters to a higher degree, but neither really jelled for me. The colonel was too much about the senselessness of war (more on that later) while the stranded pilot was a little too cute. Neither character was a failure. Neither was hard to take. But to my exactingly cranky standards, neither hit the bullseye. Finally, John Goodman plays the representative from Monarch. I thought he played it just right, not too flamboyant, nor too subdued. But the movie didn’t do enough with his character. Or Monarch, for that matter.

OK, the problems. I’ll start with Monarch. While in “Godzilla,” set in 2014, Monarch had the power to seal off a whole Japanese city for several years, in “Skull Island,” set in 1972, it is barely able to get an expedition to a tropical island funded. Huh? And John Goodman’s character doesn’t seem to have any colleagues on his level or higher in the organization. Monarch, in fact, seems more like a mirage than a force in this alternate world. Worse, the movie just assumes we’ll go along, and that it doesn’t have to explain itself. Grrrrr. (I get it. They didn’t want to spend too much time on Monarch, probably saving it for the Godzilla movies. But when you present such a startlingly different picture, you have to connect at least some of the dots, dammit!)

Onto the senselessness of war. Set just as America is pulling out of Vietnam, “Skull Island” is rife with allusions to “Apocalypse Now.” This means the movie tries to make a moral connection between the Vietnamese War and the expedition’s invasion of Skull Island. Skull Island doesn’t press this point too hard, thank God, so it’s not unbearable. But alluding to the complicated real world tragedy of the war in Vietnam doesn’t help the movie – it just highlights the simple morality of its own fantasy setting. (Modern World = Bad. Enchanted Island = Dangerous But Good.)

A final note on the “Apocalypse Now” vibe – way too many times we get scenes of soldiers at work while (great) period rock plays over the soundtrack. This happens even after they are stranded on Skull Island when no one should have a working sound system, and it undercuts the sense of adventure. At this point the soundtrack should have dropped the rock music and brought on a strong score that dramatized the mystery and menace of Skull Island’s lost world.

One of my two big complaints comes up before we get to Skull Island; the movie is kind of a mess when introducing us to its large cast. As I alluded to before, this is because of the current bad Hollywood habit of editing every f*cking scene like it’s a music video. Every f*cking scene. Current dogma holds that a locked down camera equals boredom. I couldn’t disagree more. Just compare the scattered fragments of only partially associated clips that introduce the crew of the Skull Island expedition to the beautifully played ensemble pieces we find in Howard Hawk’s “The Thing From Another World”. That movie too had a large cast, some military, some civilian, all trapped in an isolated location and facing a threat of science-fiction proportions. But Howard locked his camera down, and aided by crisp editing and a strong script, let his actors work together to create a memorable band of characters. Ah, the Good Old Days. (Yes, in lots of ways they were the Bad Old Days too. But still.)

The general messiness continues even into the action sequences. “Skull Island” isn’t too bad here, but it isn’t great either. That’s because it doesn’t really take the care it should to block out the geography of its action set pieces. Something happens here. Then something happens there. Maybe at the same time, but maybe later. Then we’re back here. Then there again. And how far apart are these places? Doesn’t matter, because the camera is always moving!!! Contrast this to John McTiernan’s superb work in 1987’s “Predator.” He makes sure we know where the characters are in relationship to each other at all times, and when he moves the camera or changes the focus he does it for a reason, not just to create “excitement.” “Predator” holds up upon repeated viewing. I can tell “Skull Island” won’t.

The sloppy geography of “Skull Island” reaches a kind of climax when Brie’s photo journalist discovers a downed helicopter not 50 feet from the walled village of the island inhabitants. That helicopter has been sitting there, smoldering, for some 24 hours, and no one came out to investigate? Not even Riley’s American pilot??? Aw, come on movie!

Well, I guess that’s enough complaining for now. And I’ll end on a note of perverse cheerfulness. Unlike Dennis (A.K.A. Der Shack Meister) I liked the Skull Crawlers. That’s because, since childhood, I have loved me some giant lizards. It’s why I’ve been able to sit through even “The Giant Gila Monster” more times than I want to admit to!

Sean Ledden (March 2017)

6 comments to First Thoughts: Skull Island

  • “current bad Hollywood habit of editing every f*cking scene like it’s a music video”

    Amen!

    “Unlike Dennis (A.K.A. Der Shack Meister) I liked the Skull Crawlers.”

    Pfffft!

    Regardless of your pro-Skull Crawler position, I thank you for your fine contribution! 🙂

  • Karl Hoegle

    Looking forward to seeing this tomorrow! I’ll break the tie on the Skull Crawlers debate!

  • Sean Ledden

    Looking forward to your approval of the Skull Crawlers! 🙂

  • Guts3d

    I watched it last night, and was non-plussed by the Captain Ahab-like focus of Samuel L. Jackson’s character against Kong, his “Great White”. His own soldiers point their weapons at him at one point, a mutiny that I could not believe in. The suicide of the one soldier late in the movie was pointless, it seemed the Senior Skull Crawler somehow knew he had dangerous weapons in his hands (Why did no one use grenades up until that point? One tossed down the roaring throat of a Skull Crawler would make mincemeat out of them, as the insides are not armored! ) I was bummed out that I didn’t get to see the big ants, and John Reilly’s character seemed a bit too cute. Did either of you stay after the credits to see the bonus scene where they tie in Godzilla with Kong?

  • Sean Ledden

    You’re right about the Captain vs The Great Ape bit. And no, I didn’t stay to the end to see the tie-in.
    🙁

  • “Did either of you stay after the credits to see the bonus scene where they tie in Godzilla with Kong?”

    Nope, I had to pee too bad! 🙂

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