Kong: Skull Island is Both Dazzling and Ridiculous
Kong: Skull Island
Review by Daniel Rester
The towering beast King Kong has impressed audiences as a top movie monster for many years. He returns this year in Kong: Skull Island. This version doesn’t take the route of Kong falling for a damsel and literally falling off of the Empire State Building. Instead it takes place in the early 70s, right after the Vietnam War, and is the second piece — after Godzilla (2014) — in a new shared monster franchise.
Kong: Skull Island’s story concerns scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) wanting to travel to an uncharted island, ultimately gaining funding for the expedition in order to “beat the Russians” to it. They recruit expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), pro photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), bitter Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and a host of others to assist them.
Upon arrival to Skull Island, by boat and helicopters, the group come under attack by the giant Kong. They attempt to survive against Kong and other nasty creatures as they trek across the island. Along the way they meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a stranded WWII pilot who teams up with them in order to try and get home.
As straight-up popcorn entertainment, Kong: Skull Island is quite a bit of fun. It’s got all the effects money can buy, with monsters smashing vehicles, humans, terrain, each other, and more for the majority of the run-time. The story being set during post-Vietnam is also a refreshing change-up, with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team imitating the hazy green and orange look of Apocalypse Now (1979) at times. The soundtrack — sometimes great, sometimes distractingly on-the-nose — also reflects the era with tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, etc.
Vogt-Roberts, best known for directing the small indie The Kings of Summer (2013), swings big with the action here — clearly having a good time with a humongous budget he isn’t used to. The spectacle of the film is occasionally dazzling, and Kong’s scale and weight as a CGI creation is believable. Vogt-Roberts lets the camera smoothly move as he lets Kong impress instead of tricky camerawork; I’m also glad the camerawork and destruction doesn’t quite get to a shaky Transformers-like level. The director doesn’t push through much with a unique filmmaking voice, yet he proves his skill with his staging and efficiency.
Despite its charms and epic look, Kong: Skull Island is also ridiculous and uneven in parts. It leans heavy on action and just sticks to the basics for storytelling and delivers one-note characters. The cast is full of likable actors, which helps make us root for their characters, but none of them have much to do besides run and scream. Reilly is the most entertaining part of the film as the crazed pilot Marlow, yet his presence and comedic touches feel separated from the rest of the cast — as if he’s in another movie. I did enjoy Samuel L. Jackson and Jason Mitchell (as a soldier named Mills), who give better performances than the movie really deserves. Hiddleston and Larson are disappointingly boring in the leads though, not doing much besides apparently finding washing machines on the island judging by their never-dirty clothes.
The film is simply too thin on interesting story and too heavy on action set pieces and disposable characters. I didn’t really care when any of them died, and the emotional moments the film tries for feel more hollow than earned; I even laughed when a certain character sacrificed himself in an unfortunate way with grenades. Vogt-Roberts also employs about five mini montages that feel completely unnecessary. And the occasionally cringe-worthy dialogue is the rotten cherry on top of the flaws.
Kong: Skull Island is an exciting and action-packed film with impressive visuals. I just wish it had more focus and purpose with its storytelling, characters, and editing. For what it is, I can mildly recommend Kong: Skull Island if you’re looking for skillfully-made but mindless escapism. Just don’t expect anything nearly as great as the 1933 or 2005 films featuring King Kong.
My Grade: B- (on an F to A+ scale).
My Viewing Scale: Skip It, Wait for Cable, Wait for Blu-ray/VOD Rental, Worth Matinee Movie Ticket, Worth Full-Price Movie Ticket
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language).