Back in 2013, director Jordon Vogt-Roberts made one of my favorite movies of that year, The Kings of Summer, a quiet, tender indie coming-of-age picture. It’s bittersweet, built on relatable characters, and subtly portrays the moment where youthful innocence collides with the hard reality of growing up. And because every young white male director who makes a moderately successful independent picture automatically gets his own blockbuster franchise, he was handed the reins to Kong: Skull Island. And he made the exact opposite of that movie.
Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie, pure and simple. And when it’s a monster movie, it’s big and brash and thrilling. But when it tries to be anything else, it’s boring and bland and flat and tedious and did I say boring? Anytime the impressive monsters appear on screen—which, thankfully, is often, as audiences meet Kong three minutes in—Skull Island is a rollicking good time. Anytime they’re not, holy shit this movie is dull. But clocking in at a bloated 118 minutes, there’s an unfortunate amount of time when no monsters carry the load and the pace face plants into the sidewalk.
At this stage in our collective cultural experience, the plot of of any King Kong movie is going to be familiar to most viewers, and Skull Island doesn’t veer much from the formula. In 1973, an expedition of government explorers, accompanied by a cadre of soldiers purloined fresh from the Vietnam War, venture to a mysterious island in the South Pacific. In this land that time forgot, a giant ape named Kong rules, only he’s far from the biggest threat.
With a strong writing team that includes Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (Godzilla), and Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed), Kong: Skull Island basically has no script. Character development is nonexistent, and any attempts to interject scientific explanations into the mix plays like the characters saying, “I am a scientist, these are science words, trust my authority.” Grandiose themes about the nature of war are given throwaway lines like, “No man comes home from war.” Equally short shrift is handed to the idea of mankind’s wanton destruction of the natural world without regard for the consequences—every time the soldiers meet a new, magical creature no human has ever laid eyes on, their first thought is, “Kill it, kill it with fire!”
Each character gets one defining trait, no more, no less, delivered as they’re introduced, then promptly ignored for the rest of the movie. Everyone appears to be having a good time, they simply don’t have anything substantial to work with.
Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad is a former British soldier and tracker—we know this because the script tells us. When we first meet him, he’s drinking in a dive-y pool hall in some backwater third-world hell-hole fighting dudes and spewing platitudes about men and war. He’s set up as a warrior haunted by what he’s seen…and that never factors in, ever. Most of what he does is shoot guns and look surprised at the next big monster the group encounters. He does get one brilliant scene, however, where the handsome Brit wears a gas mask and slow motion hacks his way through a swarm of flying dinosaurs with a katana in the midst of a cloud of toxic green mist that’s there for some reason—don’t think about it too hard, just sit back and luxuriate in the awesome absurdity. Moments like this are where Skull Island peaks.
Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver is an anti-war photographer who spouts vaguely anti-war slogans, takes pictures, and also looks surprised by the next big monster the group encounters. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is a soldier who doesn’t know what to do when he’s not at war and has a single-minded “Must kill Kong” streak. John Goodman’s Bill Randa is a similarly single-minded covert government bureaucrat on quest to prove monsters are real. Toby Kebbell’s Jack Chapman is a soldier who only thinks about getting home to his son. (Kebbell, who’s best on-screen work is the motion capture in the Planetof the Apes movies, also plays Kong, and the giant rampaging monkey with limited communication skills is by far the more interesting of the two.) Jason Mitchell plays Mills, another soldier, who’s primary concern is Chapman getting home to his son. This goes on and on down the line. Corey Hawkins is a geology nerd, and that’s all there is to tell about him. Shea Whigham is a tired soldier. Tian Jing’s San is the Asian scientist. Thomas Mann’s Slivko is the wacky one who looks like Shaggy.
Despite an incredible array of talent, the only character in Kong: Skull Island worth a damn is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an unhinged World War II pilot marooned on Skull Island for 28 years. Loopy and delirious, with an underlying gallows sense of humor, there’s not much in the way of depth to Marlow, but Reilly plays him with such a goofy, go-for-broke energy, he’s easily the human highlight of the movie. And this proves once again that John C. Reilly makes every movie better.
Visually, Kong: Skull Island references every Vietnam War movie ever made. Platoon—one moment in particular—is well represented, but Apocalypse Now is the obvious touchstone. Even the marketing calls back to Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic, but it’s all lip service. There’s a dreamy look and many a billowing cloud, a killer classic rock soundtrack that leans too heavily on the Credence, and an up-river jaunt in a rickety boat. But while Coppola uses these elements to create a vaguely hallucinatory tension and evoke a hellish journey to the darkest recesses of humanity, in Skull Island they’re nothing but empty aesthetic window dressing.
It’s in the creatures where Kong: Skull Island becomes worth watching, and they don’t skimp on the monkey—this isn’t Godzilla, where the title beast only has a few minutes of screen time. Kong himself is an impressive feat. Bigger than any of his previous cinematic iterations—there’s a reason for that we’ll get to momentarily—he’s a towering monstrosity. He’s also fully bipedal, never moving like a true great ape, and though that’s a bit odd, he’s still awe inspiring. And it’s cool to watch the characters wander through the desiccated ribcage of a massive gorilla skeleton.
Kong greeting the initial incursion into his kingdom, flinging flimsy helicopters around like Nerf footballs, is a total blast. So is watching him tussle with a giant octopus or wrestle the nefarious Skull Walkers. A weird giant log/grasshopper beast borders on wondrous. Granted, I hated the IMAX 3D presentation—it’s the kind with the uncomfortable glasses where if you don’t look at the screen perfectly, or if you sit a bit off the center line, the images blur and bleed—but the design and implementation are striking.
Kong: Skull Island is the next chapter in a shared monster universe—because every movie exists in a shared universe—that also includes Godzilla. Kong is bigger than ever so when the two iconic beasts eventually clash on screen, which they’re slated to do, they’ll be roughly the same size. Most of the links are clunky and awkward—John Goodman’s character works for Monarch, and even the opening credits mimic the King of the Monsters’ last jaunt. But just in case you didn’t get the point, a post-credits scene hammers it home.
Kong: Skull Island is an up-and-down ride. Individual moments are incredibly fun and exhilarating, and the giant monsters are precisely as giant and monstrous as you can hope. But too many other moments are tedious and painfully dull. There are no characters worth caring about—Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston skate by on innate charm, but that only goes so far—and little of note outside of the visuals. While the highs are deliriously high, the lows are a tepid slog and you feel like the explorers, tramping through the jungle, never sure where you’re going or if there’s point. [Grade: C+/B-]