Kong: Skull Island is a great set piece movie. If it were pure unabashed set pieces, I would remember all the awesome moments but the admirable attempt to give the characters equal weight ends up undermining the spectacle. Now I’m distracted from the thrill ride by shallow motivations that just feel like the movie is ashamed to be what it is. It’s ok to just be a thrill ride. If you want to be more, just giving each character a thing isn’t enough.
It is a great “recruiting the team” montage where we learn everyone’s role. Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L Jackson) leads the transport since he’s got nothing to do when Vietnam ends. Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is the guide once they’re on the ground. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) gets herself on the team because she’s an investigative photojournalist. She surprises the crew who expected Mason to be a man but she’s still the movie’s token woman. At least there are a few black guys. And these introductions would be enough to make us follow them to Skull Island, but if the filmmakers think they developed the characters beyond that they are mistaken.
The cast take their characters seriously, but really the movie is only filling in breaks between the set piece. I believe their anti-war motivations are sincere, but those don’t really propel the story. They just go from set piece to set piece. They’ve got to get to the rendezvous point and survive all the creatures in their habitats along the way but they look really heroic doing it!
When Kong is about giant monsters trying to eat people, it’s awesome. The opening is able to establish to tell a little short story with no dialogue. There are some great gags when Kong fights the helicopters. We see angles on monster action that it feels like we haven’t seen before, like using a samurai sword through the smoke. It’s still running from CGI, but there’s some thought and creativity behind it.
It sort of falls apart when we’re supposed to start caring who dies. It’s well-meaning to try to make them dimensional characters, but they are monster fodder. This is one of those movies where you wait to see which of the below the line cast is going to get picked off, and it’s cool. We didn’t used to get $100 million blockbuster versions of that.
When one character sacrifices himself valiantly, it would have been a badass moment. But when another soldier cries for him not to do it, it’s like, “Honestly. Just get killed by the monster like a good one dimensional character. Come on.” Said sacrificial character gets his requisite two scenes that explain why he is the way he is, but that’s not character development. It’s shorthand. Embrace the shorthand and play it for awesome, not for emotion. Of course movies can have more than spectacle, but if you don’t have that depth it hurts the film more because it’s glaring.
I think everyone wants to be Independence Day. That’s not exactly a high watermark but it works at what it is. Independence Day sure has some one dimensional characters but it spends the time with them. It gives each character in its ensemble a full storyline, and it’s a two and a half hour epic. Each character in that has one thing too, but their single things happen over and over.
Kong looks good because they probably had real apes to base him on, and they had experienced actors doing the performance capture. The skull crushers look like typical CGI where they wobble like single celled amoebae because there’s no real biology saying, “Wait a minute, things don’t move that way.”
This is a meaner Kong. He scowls. He’s got fangs. He eats pilots. I’m on his side but that’s still vicious. If this Kong ends up falling from the Empire State Building, it might not be as sad as the innocent who was kidnapped and then punished for escaping. It’ll just mean he lost a fight.
The allegory for Vietnam does not hold up. The film begins the day Nixon announces the end of the Vietnam War, and Packard later talks about cutting and running when things go south on Skull Island. But political catch phrases don’t make it an allegory. I suppose it’s the idea that Americans are again invading a place where the indigenous population has the advantage, but that falls apart too because Kong was losing. He’s the last of his kind left. The humans worshiping Kong are not a threat to the soldiers. The giant monsters are and they’d be a threat anywhere, in the big city too. It’s not the environment that gives them the advantage. Just saying political catch phrases like “cut and run” does not make it an allegory.
There is a post credits tag that doesn’t seem to understand what a post credits tag is supposed to do. Even if they’d managed to keep any sequel plans under wraps (they haven’t. It’s been announced) we already assume any studio movie wants to be a franchise. The post credits tag can’t just confirm they’re planning to make more. Sometimes Marvel’s done that too. They’ve gotten lazy but the good ones tell us more than what the next movie’s going to be.
I’ve been struggling with this review all week. I enjoyed watching Kong: Skull Island for the monster set pieces. I noticed the other weaknesses in between but didn’t let them spoil the fun. Perhaps I was giving it the benefit of the doubt for a while that the characters would go somewhere or the Vietnam allegory would pay off. Now I know and all I can think about are those weaknesses, so I guess that means I didn’t like it very much after all.