“Ancient species owned this earth long before we did,” warns scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman), in Kong: Skull Island, first King Kong film since Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.
1973 sees the end of the Vietnam War, and also the year when humanity discovers prehistoric creatures and a big ass monkey. A group of scientists, led by Randa, and seasoned US Air Cavalrymen, led by Colonel Packard (A bombastically vindictive Samuel L. Jackson), embark on a journey to explore and map an uncharted island. Accompanying them is retired SAS operative, Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and accomplished wartime photographer, Weaver (Brie Larson). There, they endure harsh island conditions and encounter murderous creatures… yeah you know where this is going. The film doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the typical ‘men on a mission’ or ‘kaiju’ films, but that isn’t necessarily a flagrant error on its part. A simpler approach to the story actually helped as it allowed for a quicker introduction to the characters and more brisk pacing.
The most important element of this adventure is the monster itself. Do the filmmakers capture the essence of Kong and honor his backstory? In my opinion, yes. Director Jordan Vogt Roberts effectively blends the militaristic overconfidence of the 70’s and the themes of man vs. nature to paint Kong as a brutally savage, yet empathetic protector. Also noteworthy is Terry Notary’s (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) mo-cap portrayal of the titular monster, which may not be on par with Andy Serkis’ in the 2005 version, but still satisfies on both a visual and character level. Props to the CG artists who crafted this gargantuan ape, because damn, they did a good job of making him look imposing. The combination of that with the sheer size of an IMAX screen made for an even more terrifying experience.
Though the film does a decent job of conveying its ideas and nailing the look and essence of the titular monster, Kong is its most interesting character, which isn’t saying all that much, to be honest. While the roles are all well cast and the acting decent, barely any of the human characters are given much depth or development. They also don’t have any particular, defining traits and compelling enough arcs for the audience to be invested. Also egregious are some mistimed deaths scattered across the plot. Look, it’s a monster movie, I get it. However, for deaths to work, the audience has to feel for or absolutely despise someone. The script also doesn’t service the actors well, leading to rather bland characterizations. Whatever war movie clichés you’re familiar with you’ll encounter frequently in Skull Island. You won’t walk out of the theater remembering most of these characters, which is maddening, considering the talent involved. Only Jackson’s Packard and John C. Reilly’s Lt. Marlow, a pilot who was stranded on the island for decades, entertain in the slightest.
They are perhaps the only characters, other than Kong of course, that are given any sort of development or personality and are most invested in their roles. Jackson has a ball with his role, spouting monologues and expressing fits of anger, but Reilly steals every scene he’s in. His comedic abilities give enough lightheartedness and laughs to keep the audience distracted from how boring most of the characters are. Though he mainly exists to deliver exposition, Reilly makes the most out of his role, making me actually care for him.
At the bare minimum, the technical aspects of the film are well crafted. Larry Fong’s cinematography beautifully recaptures the isolation and psychological disorder of famous Vietnam war films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, both of which heavily influenced Kong. His color palette and camerawork adroitly create the feelings of nausea and awe, which complement the action sequences well. Additionally, the sparsely, but well utilized POV shots gave the right amount of energy to amplify the intensity. Thankfully, said action is plentiful, so at the bare minimum, you will get your money’s worth if you wanted large scale fights because oh boy, Kong beating the shit out of Temple Run monster lookalikes is quite an amusing sight. Henry Jackman’s score was icing on the cake, injecting the primal fear and bombast necessary for such an adventure.
Visually stunning, Kong: Skull Island reintroduces the famed ape in a glorious inferno of monster smackin’ and bullet blazin’ action. However, if you’re looking for vibrant human characters or an original plot, you’re probably better off following a different expeditionary team.
Final score: 3 out of 5 downed Huey helicopters