Kong: Skull Island Review
Directed By: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written By: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins
Runtime: 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.
Tom Hiddleston – James Conrad
Brie Larson – Mason Weaver
Samuel L. Jackson – Preston Packard
John C. Reilly – Hank Marlow
John Goodman – Bill Randa
Corey Hawkins – Houston Brooks
John Ortiz – Victor Nieves
Tian Jing – San
Toby Kebbell – Jack Chapman / Kong
Jason Mitchell – Mills
Shea Whigham – Cole
Thomas Mann – Slivko
Eugene Cordero – Reles
Richard Jenkins – Senator Willis
Terry Notary – Kong
Kong: Skull Island marks the latest big-screen reboot for one of cinema’s most beloved giant apes. This time around, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures attempt to align a new King Kong within a shared giant monster movie universe in the hope of an eventual cinematic showdown with the 2014 big-screen reboot for cinema’s king of the monsters, Godzilla. Unfortunately, under the guidance of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island is a ridiculous, hodgepodge mess that lacks any self-awareness, tons of overpriced B-movie schlock and a characterization of the giant gorilla that leaves a lot to be desired.
Skull Island sets its narrative back in 1974. With the Vietnam War over, Bill Randa of the monster organization Monarch (the same organization from 2014’s Godzilla) is campaigning for a last-ditch expedition for the group to maintain its relevancy with the federal government. With almost no money left in the coffers, Randa and his associate, Houston Brooks (Hawkins), plead their case to Senator Willis (Jenkins) to get the green light on an expedition for the fabled “Skull Island,” an uncharted landmass in the South Pacific. Willis relents after Brooks conveniently points out that they can piggy back off a Landsat operation that’s conveniently already going to the island to chart it. The unit of Lt. Colonel Packard (Jackson) is tasked as the military escort for the operation; just as his unit was getting its walking papers to withdraw from Vietnam and head home. It’s a fact that doesn’t sit well with the brooding Packard, who sees the withdrawal from Vietnam as a “cut-and-run.” Randa and Brooks manage to hire former British SAS captain, James Conrad (Hiddleston), as the jungle tracker for the operation. Mason Weaver (Larson), fresh off a tour of embedded photojournalism in Vietnam, is brought on as the photographer of the expedition.
Unfortunately, the expedition goes fubar pretty quick due to the seismic charges dropped by the military on Skull Island getting the attention of its de-facto guardian and protector, the giant gorilla known as Kong (Chapman/Notary). Kong easily brings down the heavily armed military choppers, separating the survivors into two groups. Unfortunately, Skull Island is not just home to Kong but all manager of giant creatures that don’t take kindly to the human visitors. Luckily, the group including Conrad and Weaver are found by a group of mostly peaceful human natives, who have lived in seclusion on the island all this time, and a former WWII pilot, Hank Marlow (Reilly). Marlow was stranded on the island along with a Japanese pilot in the film’s prologue after they both crash land their after an aerial battle in the South Pacific. Marlow has been stranded on the island for almost 30 years and offers the survivors the skinny on Kong and his purpose to the island. The bombs dropped by the military have apparently drawn out Kong’s natural enemy: vicious giant lizards called Skull Crawlers. Meanwhile, the war-hardened Packard is driven further to madness and is determined to get revenge on Kong, even if it means risking the lives of all the other survivors to do it.
Kong: Skull Island is undeniably action-packed and entertaining at times, but there’s way too much going on. There’s way too many characters and subplots, which is a problem that’s shared in common to the 2005 Peter Jackson film. The script is weighed down by so many disparate elements, that Kong as a character seems almost perfunctory. Kong is there, but he lacks weight and personality. That’s something the Peter Jackson film did a much better job with; defining Kong’s character and persona.
The shared universe threads that are thrown in here are flimsy at best. The Monarch subplot is quickly lost about halfway into the film and never has a satisfying payoff. Additionally, Monarch’s purpose and existence in these films as they’ve been established is confusing. Essentially, Legendary wants Monarch to be the studio’s giant monster universe version of SHIELD, but the muddled writing doesn’t really do a good job of establishing this group or where they are supposed to go from Kong: Skull Island. That’s considering the audience’s first frame of reference to Monarch was some brief lip service in the 2014 Godzilla, and then this film, which is set 40 years before the events of Godzilla. What Monarch was doing in that film is decidedly different from what’s happening here, so it creates a lot of confusion.
What Skull Island really needed to do was to pare down some of these characters and subplots because far too many get lost in the shuffle and fail to leave an impression. Hiddleston and Larson, two of the biggest and more notable stars in the film, don’t feel well-rounded. It’s another one of those implied romances that doesn’t go anywhere, and the two share little chemistry. Hiddleston is reduced to nothing more than the film’s boring designated action hero role. Larson is the compassionate anti-war photographer-turned-action heroine. Other than that, they have very little in the way of actual characterizations or character arcs. And again, with all these characters and subplots, Kong’s presence and nature in the story is overall lacking.
The film is bolstered by the presence of John C. Reilly, who is the film’s obvious comic relief, but he does manage to provide some of the story’s best and strongest moments. Samuel L. Jackson is basically Samuel L. Jackson again. If you enjoy Jackson chewing up the scenery like he usually does and spouting Jackson-esque one-liners, then you will likely enjoy this performance. At least here, he does provide one of the movie’s best laughs, which came in very short supply for The Legend of Tarzan.
Vogt-Roberts inexperience as a filmmaker definitely shows here. Kong: Skull Island marks only his second feature, and this is the first time he’s worked with such a large budget. His style is all over the place, and it results in some moments that are absolutely goofy and ridiculous. The movie looks very unintentionally schlocky in many places. Are there some good actions and large-scale monster fights? Yes. But, they lack any sort of cohesion, and they are mired down some really ridiculous dialogue and bad characterizations. The action scenes with Kong seem more like they are there to show off Kong stomping around and killing stuff rather than actually trying to build the character. Some viewers might find this material appealing. Sometimes B-movie schlock and monster flicks can be very entertaining. Kong: Skull Island does have some moments that are undoubtedly entertaining. However, a lot of it is largely lacking and brought down by Vogt-Robert’s really overshot style. While the film is set in the 1970s, it really doesn’t have the look or feel of that time period. The characters similarly have very modern voices as well.