By Megan Bianco
Franchises are at an all-time high in Hollywood right now. Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, etc. “Soft reboot” is a gimmicky phrase to describe a new movie in a classic franchise that could be viewed as either a remake or a sequel. There are plenty of those going around right now too: Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. So of course, movie viewers are going to want to see a new King Kong movie, with fresh characters, right? Right?
Maybe, maybe not. Because cinematic universes are a relevant thing now thanks to the phenomenon of Marvel’s films, every studio wants their own universe. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are revamping not only Godzilla (2014), but also the giant ape in Kong: Skull Island, and both are appearing together in three years for the first time since 1962.
Skull Island is the same basic premise as always with Kong, but instead of a movie crew traveling to a secret location to make a wildlife film, it’s a military squadron mapping out the lost island. Instead of a beautiful blonde ingénue (Fay Wray, Jessica Lange or Naomi Watts), the beautiful blonde (Brie Larson) is an independent photographer in pants. The title character himself is also 10 times bigger than before, and the other creatures that inhabit the island are scarier as well.
As for the rest of the movie…well, there is John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Thomas Mann and John C. Reilly. And the visual effects are quite impressive with so many fight scenes involving computer-generated creatures, as is the retro soundtrack of mid-20th century hits and sound mixing….And that’s about it.
It’s funny that my main complaint about Rogue One last year was the lack of interesting characters and hokey dialogue, and here it’s exactly the same thing, but possibly worse. Even more interesting is Tony Gilroy had a hand in the writing Rogue, while his brother Dan co-wrote Skull Island. And this is surprising because Dan’s own indie flick Nightcrawler was one of the best character studies of 2014, and Tony’s Michael Clayton (2007) is a masterpiece. So what’s going on with these studio features?
Goodman and Jackson phone it in big time, Hiddleston is sorely miscast as badass James Conrad with his posh English accent. Larson’s Mason Weaver—who isn’t screaming and crying over everything like her predecessors—is a Kong female lead who actually fights back this time. But amazingly she’s somehow less developed than even Wray’s Ann Darrow, who is the archetypical, old fashioned damsel in distress. The simultaneously best and worst part of the cast is Reilly. Who is hilarious and amusing as a stranded soldier, but feels like a character from a completely different movie with his usual goofy delivery.
The problem is we seriously don’t know anyone’s name in the film and there isn’t enough backstory. I have no idea what Mason’s motive for going on the island is besides “war is bad.” We have Chinese actress Jing Tian in her first Hollywood movie, and it’s literally never stated what her character’s role is in the group. Another problem is the themes and tone are way too heavy handed. The jokes are stale and flat, although Goodman’s character saying “there will never be a more screwed up time in D.C.” about the Vietnam-Watergate era might be the funniest movie line ever. The whole experience of Skull Island actually gave me a new appreciation for Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, which I previously felt was tediously long for a Hollywood adventure movie.
And yet, the latest film appears to be doing well with audiences. Perhaps the average movie-goer doesn’t have particularly high standards. Maybe my standards are too high. A by-the-numbers blockbuster could be a decent distraction from politics and real life with viewers. It’s like that joke-turned-meme from “The Simpsons.” “Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.” I’ve been feeling like that a lot lately.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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