King Kong’s cinematic life has been vast and storied. Starting with his debut in 1933’s King Kong starring Fay Wray, the eponymous creature laid down the format for all kinds of monster films in the pre and post-code era. While the original film was always the one to shine the brightest, Kong had many films. Even his son had an appearance! But Kong: Skull Island isn’t really looking to those films for inspiration. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is looking to channel some Amblin flavor, a large dose of Apocalypse Now, and the fun monster battles of the Toho era monster movies. Not only does Roberts fail at his attempt to turn those three films into something cohesive but he mostly misses the mark on making the character fun at all.
Skull Island is set in 1973 during the end of the Vietnam war. Some soldiers are ready to go back home after fighting a war they never entirely understood, some like Lt Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) don’t feel like going back home yet. Thankfully for him, William Randa (John Goodman) is looking for a military escort to a remote island in Southeast Asia. Along for the ride are former SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), journalist and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a dozen other puny humans ripe for the killing. Sadly, their awe for Skull Island is shortlived when the King himself greets them by destroying their helicopters and killing half the crew. Now they have to fight their way through the island while meeting up with the wacky Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) and many different types of creatures.
The filmmakers seem incredibly unsure of themselves all throughout this film. If the date and setting didn’t give away that the film is set during Vietnam, the tiresome soundtrack certainly does. The Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness references won’t be lost on you with character names like Hank Marlow and James Conrad. A major problem of the film is its complete disregard for subtlety. It’s not that a monster film always needs a message or deep character motivation, but when the film ties itself deeply to Apocalypse Now and the Amblin films of the early 80’s, there needs to be a decent attempt to make the story/characters interesting. Neither of those two qualities are strong in Kong: Skull Island.
Injecting the audience into a story like this involves a teensy bit of reality. It can be the physical reality of the situation. Environments and different creatures can be shot in real environments and practical effects. The reality can also live in the way the characters behave and react. It’s very easy to say neither of those things are accomplished. There is an unruly amount of CG used in places that could easily have been practically shot. There are one too many overly choreographed scenes including a moment where Tom Hiddleston cuts up a few dozen prehistoric birds while wearing a gas mask. A large part of this can be blamed on longtime Zack Snyder cinematrographer Larry Fong. His presence brings down what could’ve been a loose and fun version of the Kong story. With his help, Kong: Skull Island is a little too polished.
I’d like to give a shout-out to the course correction made in the last 20 minutes of the film. While it’s too little too late, Roberts remembers that the audience came to see Kong kick some ass and we finally get to see those monster battles we all wanted. In these moments, the choreography of the fights are excellent and with a lot of the humans out of the way, a large portion of the weaknesses of the film disappear. While these wonderful moments are squandered by a couple misguided post-credits scenes, it was refreshing to see the movie everyone wanted. There’s a bright future of Kong if Legendary Pictures gets their act together. I don’t see that coming with this franchise, but we can always revisit the great times we had with the character. Kong will live on.
Kong: Skull Island
- King Kong is just as menacing and scary as he's ever been
- Final 20 minutes are everything I could ever want out of a Kong film
- Visual and Creature effect are mostly stunning
- Almost every character is not fleshed out and incredibly simple
- Film too often feels fake when practical effects could have helped with reality
- Unsubtle Vietnam references sink the film from becoming an interesting meditation on Apocalypse Now