KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers an exciting version of the King despite obvious flaws.
Kong: Skull Island elicited two reactions from me. The first is awe at the set pieces involving King Kong, the beautiful world of Skull Island and the humorous character portrayed by John C. Reilly. The other reaction will be boredom from dull cinematography, annoyance from over-editing, and apathy from the undercooked script. This is the first movie I am reviewing in the new year, so perhaps I just have a lot of pent up words but it’s going be a long one.
Godzilla (2014) relied on suspense, limiting the screen time of Godzilla for most of the movie until the climactic battle. In Godzilla, the king of all monsters has about 9 minutes of total screen time. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director of Kong: Skull Island, doesn’t hold back. Kong is a constant presence, whether it’s fast paced fights or a moment of the beast stargazing. What we get is ultimately a sympathetic figure. Born to massive apes, like himself, Kong is the last of his kind, protecting a remote village from monsters that lurk in underground caverns. Skull Crawlers, as they are dubbed by one character, are much more carnal and dangerous, providing one of the two antagonists. The other comes in the form of man, or one man in particular, Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson).
Having two antagonists of equal weight is usually not a good sign. When looking back at the plot, I am reminded of my least favorite film of 2016, Suicide Squad. Like Suicide Squad (both are from Warner Bros.), the plot is somehow both simple and convoluted at the same time. Both have way too many characters, causing nearly all of them to be underdeveloped. We spend the first act of Kong: Skull Island being introduced to the important members of the crew. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is a scientist belonging to a secretive government organization called Monarch. He (rather easily) convinces a skeptical senator to green light an expedition to a remote island in the closing days of the Vietnam War. His bookish sidekick, Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), helps him build a team for this expedition. It includes James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) an ex-SAS tracker, the aforementioned Colonel Preston Packard and a squad for Army soldiers to accompany the group of scientists. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a successful wartime photographer, manages to tag along. Each of these characters gets an introductory scene. Ultimately, this service time is wasted, as the best (human) character isn’t even introduced until the second act.
Between the blasé cinematography and editing, the first act of the film drags on. When we finally reach the mysterious Skull Island, things start to pick up. Soon after the expedition, riding in a fleet of helicopters, pierces the ever present storm surrounding Skull Island, the group begins blowing up charges on the island for “geological tests.” We later find out Randa’s ulterior motive for these tests is to draw out the monsters he believes live there. Lo and behold, a palm tree flying through the air and destroying one of the helicopters reveals monsters do exist. This one, Kong, is unhappy with the explosive tests. The subsequent action scene, where Kong destroys all the choppers and kills at least seven of Colonel Packard’s men, is a marvelous display of special effects. The most striking shot to me takes place in the quiet moments between action, with the silhouette of Kong in front of a rising sun. This shot is a motif emblematic of the care taken to show Kong as both impressive and otherworldly.
After being overwhelmed by Kong, the survivors are split into two groups: One is Bill Randa, Colonel Packard and a group of soldiers not killed by Kong. The second is a ragtag group led by Conrad and Weaver. The Conrad-Weaver group soon stumble upon a remote village of island locals. There they meet the best character in the film, Hank Marlow (John C Reilly). We first see Hank in the pre-title flashback 28 years earlier in the thick of World War II. Having been stranded on Skull Island, he is able to give our protagonists the backstory of Kong and the island itself. In doing so, he also becomes the most fleshed out human character. By giving him stakes (a wife and son he hasn’t seen in 28 years), I cared about his well-being. I found myself lacking this sentiment for all the other human characters. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are beautiful, talented actors who’s shallow roles undermine their commitment. These two are would-be protagonists that I didn’t care much about.
The script itself felt messy. One example happens later in the film. Colonel Packard appears to follow the ‘no man left behind’ mantra. He makes radio contact with a soldier and is determined to find him. When his group is able to reunite with the Conrad-Weaver group, they decide to find this lost man. One scene later, the whole party is (inevitably) ambushed by Skull Crawlers. In the fight, I counted three nameless soldiers being killed. After the fight, they eventually find the remains of the soldier they were looking for in the first place. Colonel Packard makes a point to tell his men to get his stuff (dog tags and a diary) back to his family. What confuses me is that there is no mention of the other dead soldiers. What was wrong with them? Did they not have families? Does Colonel Packard play favorites? Are they just props to show the Skull Crawlers in action? All joking aside, there was a trend of selective bias by the writers that distract from the overall narrative. The most egregious offense to me is when Conrad and Weaver first meet. Everything about this scene, from the dialogue to the camera angles to the editing was bleh. It was also unnecessary as (spoiler) they don’t become a romantic item. I actually appreciated the lack of romance in the film. It didn’t need it. It just also didn’t need a lot of other things that were included. The one thing I will praise the script for were some zingy one-liners. There were some interesting quotes and philosophies a nerd like me could appreciate. They don’t, however, make up for the rest of it.
What is a shame is that this is my favorite portrayal of both King Kong and his home island. Better than Peter Jackson’s 2005 version and (all history aside) better than the 1933 version. If we had spent more time with King Kong and less with the human characters, I feel this movie would have been amazing. And despite all it’s flaws, this isn’t a bad film. This is in nor part due to the CGI. The army of artist on this film do an amazing job with every creature on display, from King Kong to the Skull Crawlers to a giant spider. There is a lot of wonder on Skull Island, and I wish we had more of it.
Overall, those able to turn off their brain will really did enjoy this flick. It should do well, especially overseas, and I am excited for any potential sequels. All in all, I would say that is a success for Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Warner Bros.