KONG: SKULL ISLAND
By Nathan Evans
I’ve never been a monster movie person. When I was a kid and all of my friends were thrilling to the old Toho Godzilla movies, I was more concerned about Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men: the four color characters that owned my Saturday morning cartoon block. Though that’s not to say I didn’t occasionally join in on what they were interested in. I took a liking to ‘Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla’ in particular; a giant, atomic blast breathing dinosaur fighting the evil robot version of himself? That’s just metal, but for the most part I’ve never much been concerned with the creature feature sub-genre.
Twelve years ago ‘The Lord of the Rings’ director, Peter Jackson, attempted to rekindle the creature feature flame with his remake of the O.G. monster movie, ’King Kong’. Though overlong and maybe a little too self serious, that movie was a decent enough effort and proved that a character as ridiculous as Kong could work in a contemporary cinematic setting. I’m not sure if Jackson’s ‘Kong’ was meant to launch a new franchise, but if it was, it wasn’t successful. That film seems to have been nearly completely forgotten by today’s casual filmgoers, which leaves the door wide open for Legendary/ Warner Bros. Pictures to once again reboot the franchise with ‘Kong: Skull Island’; a film that desperately reeks of franchise starter ambition.
The events of ‘Skull Island’ kick off when a pair of scientists, portrayed by John Goodman and Corey Hawkins (‘Straight Outta Compton’’s Dr. Dre), convince an inconsequential senator (Richard Jenkins) to allot government funding for an expedition to an unmapped island in the Pacific Ocean at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Our determined researchers claim the expedition is meant solely for the purposes of scientific advancement: possible medical breakthroughs, discovery of new plant life, confirmation of Hawkins’ unconventional geological theories, etc., when in reality their ambitions are a bit more sinister.
Despite a military escort, Goodman and Hawkins’ characters feel they simply must employ an experienced tracker because of vague reasons that allow the film to shoehorn in your traditional roguishly handsome, adventure film hero archetype. In this case a former British SAS soldier, James Conrad (a beefier than usual Tom Hiddleston), who, despite knowing the voyage is a bad idea, agrees to join in the interest of personal profit. Before the group can set sail for parts unknown, they’re joined by plucky photojournalist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), whom Samuel L. Jackson’s military general, Preston Packard, instantly takes a disliking to; he believes people like her undermined his efforts in the war.
With the bloated cast on board, the expedition sets off for the titular land mass. Save for some strange weather patterns that would make any sane person turn back, the excursion begins swimmingly. Of course, in true monster movie fashion, it isn’t long before our intrepid scientists and adventurers overstep their bounds and begin dropping bombs in an effort to use the shockwaves to map the island’s topography. The bombardment stirs awake the monsters that had been lying dormant on the island, including the most fearsome of them all: the stories tall island king: Kong! After an initial, disastrous encounter with the beast that separates our heroes (and sets Kong square in General Packard’s sights), we follow our protagonists as they struggle to stay alive and realize that there may be threats even worse than Kong on the island.
If you noticed that I didn’t bother to name the scientists that set the film’s events into motion during that synopsis, I want you to know that that was entirely intentional. They don’t matter, in fact, most of the characters that round out this ensemble don’t matter. Not a single character in this film, including our two protagonists, Larson and Hiddleston, or Samuel L. Jackson’s burgeoning antagonist, ever get fleshed out. There’s no way a cast this large could in a film that clocks in at a slim two hours anyway.
Perhaps the lack of characterization could be forgiven if the characters made up for it with their actions, but you’ll spend most of the movie waiting for somebody, anybody to actually do something. Hiddleston, giving his best James Bond audition, certainly (and unexpectedly) looks the part of the action hero, but stands inert for most of the film. It’s likewise with Larson who basically stands around looking attractive and occasionally takes a photograph through any one of the many montages that permeate the film; montages that are set to a thumping soundtrack that includes every single Vietnam era music cliche you’ve ever seen in a movie. I’m honestly shocked that Noah Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ never played at any point. The eye rolling set of songs director, Jordon Vogt-Roberts, beats you over the head with at every turn butts up against Henry Jackman’s thudding, modern sounding score, lending to the feeling that the film was soullessly stitched together.
Even more disappointing than the characters that aren’t explored are the characters that are wasted entirely. Despite opening the film, Hawkins and Goodman are mostly absent throughout, and you’ll wonder why a soldier played by the very talented Toby Kebbell (from Guy Ritchie’s excellent film ‘Rock’n Rolla’) is in the film at all. Obscure, yet solid character actor Marc Evan Jackson is thrown into the mix and then wasted as well; though he does get featured in a key scene where he gets to make a decision that is completely at odds with his portrayal throughout the film. It’s like the film’s writers went out of their way to include moments that didn’t make any sense.
On top of the confused soundscape, weak characterization, and muddled motivations, is some truly awful, unfunny dialogue. Almost everything that comes out of these characters mouths is either lame, nonsensical, or both. Unfortunately, Jason Mitchell (another ‘Straight Outta Compton’ alum) and Shea Whigam’s soldiers are saddled with most of the dead on arrival comedic relief. It would be one thing if their jokes just weren’t funny, but I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout that the writer behind the dialogue was patting himself on the back for what he thought was his immense wit.
What’s even more egregious than the intentional jabs at humor are the unintentional ones. This film is hilarious in all of the wrong spots. In the interest of spoilers, I won’t pinpoint the exact moment, but I found myself cackling at one of the film’s most dramatic turns. It’s a moment meant to honor the valor and character of those that served during the Vietnam War, instead it just reminded me of Ben Stiller’s ‘Tropic Thunder’— not the desired result.
I’ve been going in pretty hard on ‘Kong: Skull Island’, but the movie isn’t a complete loss. Partway through the movie we’re introduced to a comic foil portrayed by the effortlessly talented John C. Reilly. Reilly makes the film work when he shows up, and his performance strikes the balance of comedy and drama the film itself tries and fails to achieve. In addition to Reilly’s performance, the film does manage to pull off a couple of decent action sequences and monster fights (though some of them do fall victim to the aforementioned, unintentional hilarity). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t touch on the excellent visual effects work the film manages to deliver. The sense of scale is truly staggering at moments and the digital artistry behind Kong is so strong, the character feels more human than the rest of the cast throughout much of the film.
I wanted to like ‘Kong: Skull Island’, I really did. As a fan of Marvel’s ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (both the comic book character and Louis Leterrier’s 2008 film) I have an affinity for rampaging beasts and continuity between film franchises (an oddly specific thing to have an affinity for). Despite not knowing for sure, I was pretty certain this film was supposed to serve as a kind of bridge between itself and Gareth Edward’s 2014 remake of ‘Godzilla’. It was with the film’s after credit sequence that those suspicions were confirmed. It seems like these days every film franchise is trying to recreate the magic trick Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe was able to pull off. Unfortunately, they keep forgetting that the key to making that work is making sure that each film is true to itself and stands on its own. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ wears its intentions on its sleeve, yet it doesn’t put in the work to make those intentions a reality.
RATING: 2 OUT OF 5