‘Kong: Skull Island’ Is Dumber Than a Barrel of Dead Monkeys But Thankfully More Fun
An action-filled monster-mash weighed down by idiocy.
The number one thing viewers typically want from a movie about giant monsters is an abundance of giant monster action. It’s really not too much to ask, and while Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot was a big hit it was dogged from its earliest screenings with that very deserved complaint. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures appear to have been listening because their latest giant monster picture, Kong: Skull Island, is fairly loaded with action and mayhem involving over-sized creatures. Unfortunately, with a single exception, that’s really all it has going for it.
After a brief (and unnecessary) intro set during World War II that sees two enemy pilots crash land on a mysterious island where they meet a big ape, we jump ahead to the early ’70s and the end of the Vietnam war. Bill Randa (John Goodman) heads up a group called Monarch, and he sees this as his last chance to lead an exploratory trip to the island funded by the government and accompanied by military support in the hopes of finding new life forms. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) – a man who says we “abandoned” the war because he can’t bring himself to admit defeat – commands the helicopter squadron providing defense support, and they’re joined on the trek into this danger-filled heart of darkness by a group of scientists, an anti-war photographer named Mason (Brie Larson), and an acclaimed ex-SAS commando turned tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston).
I do love the smell of subtlety in the morning.
They fly through a strange storm cloud surrounding the island and immediately begin bombing the place to record seismic data. Keep in mind there’s no immediacy here as the plan is to spend three days on the island before heading to a prearranged ex-filtration spot, but rather than map the island first via photographs from above they just start bombing. They’re only a few minutes into it when Kong appears to swipe all ten (or so) choppers out of the sky forcing the survivors to trek the island on foot while facing off against numerous other beasts along the way.
Kong: Skull Island is a big, dumb, action movie, and that minimal effort will be more than enough for some viewers. The monster action is pretty plentiful after the first act with giant spiders, a big octopus, huge reptilian beasts called Skull Crawlers, and more picking away at the humans and occasionally feuding among themselves. There are a handful of iffy-looking effects shots/sequences, but for the most part the monsters and their surroundings are extremely well-captured via sharp CG and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (The Kings of Summer) eye for framing and shot composition.
But sweet jesus is this script terrible.
Credited to three writers (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connelly), the script offers up a continuous string of utter idiocy on the part of its human characters. In addition to the bombing nonsense and initial helicopter assault – you’re fighting a ground-locked creature whose only defense is his arms, so maybe stop flying within arm’s reach? – characters seem to repeatedly forget that creatures keep trying to kill them. They put their guns down, they crack casual jokes mere minutes after friends are torn apart before their eyes, and the much lauded tracker never even gets to track a damn thing. And why bring a freelance photographer along on a top-secret mission in the first place?
None of these people are the slightest bit interesting despite the caliber of performers behind them or the lackluster stabs at backstory, and we just don’t care about any of their fates. Poor Toby Kebbell (who also plays Kong) is saddled with a soldier whose pining for his son triggers a belabored gag involving his letters to the boy, and an extraneous amount of time is devoted to it with minimal payoff. Packard meanwhile is as cartoonish creation as you’ll find. Larson’s Mason meanwhile appears to exist solely so that the film can honor the long-standing, possibly racist tradition of Kong only having eyes for blond white women.
I get it. Characters like these are part and parcel in both big blockbusters and the kind of old-school monster movies it’s aping, but that’s no excuse for this kind of laziness. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have smart, engaging, fun characters who also happen to be fighting monsters. The closest we get is with the arrival of John C. Reilly’s Marlow (another pull from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), the American pilot from the intro who’s been stuck on the island for decades. Reilly is wonderfully bonkers and the most entertaining part of the film outside of the monsters, but while he brings the laughs they constantly feel at odds with the film’s numerous, half-hearted attempts at seriousness. It’s most noticeable in his own arc – the natives have given him a home, but not only has he never bothered to learn their language or teach them English over thirty years but they never get to speak for themselves at all. We’re supposed to give a damn about his relationship to them, but as with Kebbell’s character it’s nothing more than minimal lip service.
The problem, and probably the main motivation behind the film’s human blandness, is the feeling that it’s designed first and foremost as a piece of WB’s “big monster” universe alongside Godzilla and others to be named shortly. A release date is already set for the pair’s face-off, and I expect video games and theme park rides are in the works as well. It is what it is, but one wishes it also aimed to be something more.
Kong: Skull Island features CG creatures, but it’s every bit a mix of old, Godzilla-like (ie men in costumes) monster stomping and the dumb people/stop-motion creature appearances of One Million Years B.C. There’s enough fun to be had here for a couple of hours at the movies, but it’s a forgettable romp serving mainly to bring us one step closer to the next entry in the franchise and the cold, inevitable grip of death itself.