King Kong has gone through many iterations throughout the years, but one thing remains constant: He’s a misunderstood giant who’s far less of a monster than the humans who attack him. Peter Jackson’s KING KONG pioneered technology and special effects all whilst gifting us a hugely entertaining spectacle with gravitas and heart. Director Jordan Vogt-Robert’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND does a sufficient job at cultivating fun, but not much else.
An uncharted, mythical island, nicknamed “Skull Island,” has been discovered, and Monarch (remember them from Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA?!) surveyor Bill Randa (John Goodman), geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and biologist San (Jing Tian) set out on an exploration mission. They assemble a crack team to accompany them. They include Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Captain Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), combat photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), expert decommissioned military tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and several soldiers and scientists. Once on the adventure, however, they find the unexpected on the perfectly preserved, practically prehistoric island: a giant beast the indigenous inhabitants call “Kong.” With additional help from a downed WWII-era pilot (John C. Reilly, a.k.a. the lone source of comedic relief), the team’s rescue would seem imminent – only it’s not gonna be that easy.
The 800-ton gorilla in the room is that there’s no main character. Not even Kong really gets to be the lead in his titular movie. It’s more of an ensemble piece where the filmmakers dropped the ball on character development. Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly’s script has characters, a multitude of them actually, but none have wants, needs and motivations. 90% of them are defined by their jobs, resulting in one-dimensionality. Only a couple have fleshed out arcs – a disappointment given there are myriad opportunities to give them satisfactory resolution. And the ones who do get to see their characters come full circle lack the impact necessary for their inclusion to really mean something. One character’s redemptive arc has him unnecessarily (and very, very stupidly) sacrificing himself. Another gets his conclusion during the end credits after the story already had definitive closure.
Character dynamics are left an untapped resource. There’s precious little conflict between the forces of military and science. Sure, there’s a standoff between #TeamCompassion and #TeamCombat, leading to a predictable crescendo. However, it doesn’t come to a fever-pitch where you care who comes out of it alive. The antagonistic relationship between Kong and Colonel Packard, who succumbs to a cliché-riddled Colonel Kurtz-like madness (this film leans on APOCALYPSE NOW a lot), needs work. Two menacing stare downs does not conflict make. While we’re at it, two scenes of horsing around do not form camaraderie between the soldiers. With greater craft and care, powerful platitudes about war, science and nature wouldn’t be as ham-handedly delivered. Lines like “an enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for him” or “take away our uniforms and he became my brother” land like anvils in your lap. Let’s not even talk about the soundtrack filled with obvious mix tape choices either (CCR, Jefferson Airplane and Black Sabbath). We don’t need to go there – only to say music supervision is a lost art and this does it no favors.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good here. There is – it just could’ve been so much better. Unlike Edwards’ GODZILLA, we do get to see monster fights in all their glory. These are, hands down, the best parts of this film and what make it worth your time. Tone and intensity is similar to JURASSIC PARK – minus the slack-jawed awe and spectacle. In fact, Jackson even utters, “Hold on to your butts” early in the first act. Ms. Weaver isn’t the typical “damsel in distress” we’ve come to see in KONG movies. She does plenty of saving the men without being hampered by tropes. Despite a few choppy CG-driven scenes (like the bamboo-legged giant spiders and, more egregiously, the walk through the boneyard), Vogt-Roberts – along with director of photography Larry Fong – paints an aesthetically pleasing portrait. The first act is filled with artistic fluidity, taking this out of the generic tentpole ghetto and propelling it into something much more unique. And despite the lackluster material afforded them, the talented, diverse cast make the most of it.
Considering that the filmmakers show Kong as a kindred spirit to Godzilla – as a protector/ preservationist legendary spirit of nature – it will be interesting to see how they carry this into their planned KONG VS. GODZILLA match-up. If the pair are united in the same goal, what do they have to fight about? Does their shared philosophy paint the creatives into a corner? Only time – and greater minds – will tell. Their almost palpable desperation to reverse engineer a Marvel-inspired universe is a lofty goal – one I’m skeptical will pan out.
2.5 out of 5
KONG: SKULL ISLAND opens on March 10.