Kong: Skull Island, 2017
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, and Will Brittain.
A team of explorers and soldiers travel to an uncharted island in the Pacific, unaware that they are crossing into the domain of monsters, including the mythic Kong.
At once passably entertaining and undeniably disappointing, the latest attempt to re-imagine King Kong – this time ahead of a planned cinematic scuffle with Godzilla in 2020 – misses almost as much as it hits, but propelled by the titular beast’s sheer mythic power, it just barely scrapes a pass regardless.
Government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads an expedition of explorers and soldiers to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean known as Skull Island, and upon arriving, their explosive experiments immediately rouse the over-sized, ill-pleased ape resident himself, King Kong.
That’s really all the set-up you need for a movie that’s mercifully light on preambles – converse to Gareth Edwards’ oppressively front-loaded Godzilla reboot – and quickly dives headlong into the man vs. monster shenanigans viewers paid their cash to see. Barely 20 minutes pass before Kong is throwing helicopters around like an infant might its toys, and the scattered surviving humans are then left to desperately scramble to their planned exfiltration site across the island.
The flip-side of this no-nonsense approach is that Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Max Borenstein’s (Godzilla) script pays little attention to the human characters who fill the screen much more frequently than Kong himself or the film’s other CGI beasties. Only Samuel L. Jackson’s vengeful Colonel and John C. Reilly’s stranded WWII survivalist receive anything approaching competent character development, while Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston’s heroes in particular – an “anti-war photographer” and a former-SAS tracker respectively – rarely feel like more than attractive people designed to get butts in seats.
That’s just a sampling of Kong’s terrific cast, which also boasts John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann, all under-utilised, even wasted, in varying degrees. This being a Hollywood blockbuster and all, it also features a barely-there appearance from Chinese actress Jing Tian as a flagrantly tokenistic character intended solely to feed the lucrative Chinese market.
So, it’s a simple set-up that’s light on both characters and plot, but what about the action? Well, there is a lot of it, and much of the movie in fact feels like one long, extended set-piece. However, the action is disadvantaged somewhat by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (The Kings of Summer) clear difficulty handling such a mammoth project, employing aggressively old-hat slow-motion (which the film’s apologists might argue is an intentional nod to Kong’s B-movie roots) and haphazard editing that suggests a film possibly stitched together by too many creative voices. For those anticipating his helming of the apparently upcoming Metal Gear Solid movie, it’s a little disconcerting.
One real sticking point is the shockingly low standard of much of the film’s visual effects; Kong himself is a marvelous sight to behold, as are most of the film’s creatures, but composite shots involving actors are guffaw-inducingly cheap-looking and again indicate a director with little experience handling big-budget productions employing abundant amounts of green-screen.
Still, when the action pops, it really pops, and Kong’s various battles against the island’s vicious Skull Crawlers are more often than not riotously entertaining, especially when the humans are pushed to the periphery and it seizes its potential as pure, smash-bang spectacle. That the humans inevitably end up squaring off against one another, some in a defiant attempt to “save” Kong from others, is pure, howling farce yet bizarrely delivered with not a hint of the tongue poking in the cheek.
That highlights another of the film’s many peculiarities; its tone wavers all over the place and verges on downright schizophrenic at times, which at least makes it more interesting than so many of its monster movie brethren. John C. Reilly brings the laughs, then minutes later some poor sap has an arm ripped off and it’s all fear and grimaces. The script, the director and the actors rarely find a way to reconcile this, so they seem to simply hope you’ll enjoy the barmy action enough not to mind the mood whiplash too much. It’s definitely strange, but basically fine.
While its dad rock soundtrack and eye-rollingly on-the-nose character names – of course Tom Hiddleston’s character is named after Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad – suggest a somewhat self-satisfied air about itself, Kong: Skull Island is largely an unpretentious romp that delivers the carnage viewers will expect, even if anyone hoping for something more substantial will be left wanting. And of course, make sure you stick around for the now-requisite post-credits scene.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.