Legendary was producing Kong: Skull island for Universal, the owners of King Kong. Across the street at Warner Brothers, Legendary was producing the Godzilla reboot. So, one day, Legendary went to Universal and said, "Hey, can we move Kong: Skull Island across the street to Warner Brothers?" Universal said, "Sure." And with that, the MonsterVerse cinematic universe was born! After Kong: Skull Island would be Godzilla 2 (now officially titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters), and it'll cap off with Kong vs. Godzilla.
As one article I read online not too long ago pointed out, thanks to Marvel and SHIELD, one of the cliches of a cinematic universe is you need a shadowy government agency to bring everything together. In the MonsterVerse, it's Monarch, the organization charged with tracking and monitoring these giant monsters (or, massive unidentified terrestrial organisms, to use the MonsterVerse's term). Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973. Monarch is about to get shut down because there hasn't been any giant monster sightings in quite some time. The director of Monarch, John Goodman, makes his case. This new technology called satellite imaging has uncovered the long fabled Skull Island. Thanks to a storm system that has cut off the island from the rest of the world, this island has remained untouched since prehistoric times. John Goodman figures if there are any giant monsters from prehistoric times, this is where they'll be. So, he manages to sneak along with the satellite imaging team that's going to explore the island.
Of course, they'll need a guide and tracker to help them navigate the island, so they go to your standard rough and tumble bar and pick up rough and tumble Tom Hiddleston.
Being 1973, this is also the final days of the Vietnam War. They'll need a security escort on this island, so Colonel Samuel L. Jackson gets the call. He's kind of bitter at the USA pulling out of Vietnam ("We didn't lose the war, we abandoned it," he tells one character), so he jumps at the chance for one last mission, even if it is security detail for a bunch of eggheads.
With all this going on, war photographer Brie Larson smells a story, so she manages to join the expedition to cover it.
Our team's assembled, and they head to Skull Island. They being doing their seismic testing as part of their geological survey. For those who don't know, that's when you set off explosives to see what's underground. And of course, the bombs awaken...Kong, who promptly lays waste to the expedition.
And here's where the main plot begins. Our survivors are split into two camps. There's Samuel L. Jackson, who wants to avenge his soldiers that Kong killed and take down Kong. And there's Hiddleston and Larson, who just want to get the hell off the island.
Hiddleston and Larson are soon joined by John C. Riley. He's a World War II pilot who crashed on the island, and his been stuck there for almost 30 years. Needless to say, he's gone a little bit loopy, but he's eager to join Hiddleston and Larson and finally get home.
And this is where I've got to give the film credit. As much as I love giant monster movies, the #1 complaint I always have about them is they can never figure out what to get the humans to do. I mean, we all know that the human plotlines are just filler until the giant monsters fight. But damn it, in Kong: Skull Island makes a real effort to make our humans interesting. Best of all is, of course, Samuel L. Jackson, doing his best Captain Ahab as he grows more and more obsessed with killing Kong. John Goodman is a more subdued version of this archetype. It was his obsession that got them to his island, and he's starting to let it go as he sees how it destroys Jackson.
And John C. Riley, man. He's great, too, as you can never tell if he's just joking or if he's actually gone insane as part of his time on the island.
Strangely, despite being the first big name attached to the cast, and played up as the lead, Tom Hiddleston comes across as the most bland character. Hell, you even tend to forget he's in the film until he wanders back in and delivers some survival advice. Hiddleston needed more to do, darn it.
Actually, I still think the biggest waste is the Japanese woman, whose name escapes me. (Hell, all the characters' names escape me, which is why I'm referring to their actor names). John Goodman brings some of his proteges from Monarch along to help document the findings, and one of them is a Japanese woman. Now, I'm pretty sure the only reason why she's there is to make sure Japan is represented and to remind us that this is part of the greater Godzilla universe. But, dude, she's only got six lines, and most of them are relegated to "Look out!" I mean, at the very least, since she's this Monarch scientist, she could have been making notes on the monsters. Brie Larson, as the photographer, could have been snapping picture of the monsters. Have a scene where they sit down to compare notes about their findings, and BOOM! You pass the Bechdel test! THIS ISN'T HARD, PEOPLE!
Since this is a giant monster movie, the big question is, how are the giant monster fights? And there is some pretty cool giant monster action. It starts with Kong laying waste to the expedition, which is Kong vs. about a dozen helicopters. The other main giant monster on the island are called Skullwalkers. The look like giant snakes with two legs, and a large, pointed, bone-white head. The climactic battle is Kong taking on the lead Skullwalker, and it is a a magnificent fight. The fight takes place in a ship's graveyard on the island, and I love how Kong improvises weapons out of the ship parts. A flail made from a ship's anchor chain and propeller? Awesome. Wrapping it around his wrist to use as a gauntlet? Super-cool.
Kong: Skull Island was good, but not great. Very entertaining. I liked the genuine effort to make the characters interesting in a giant monster movie.