By Jack Mansfield
King Kong has had many outings over the years, dating back to the classic 1933 film of the same name. Ever since then, there has been reboot after reboot, and this film is no different: Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017) is an entirely new story centred around the iconic monster. I have fond memories of Peter Jackson’s attempt at the character in 2005; however, I was a lot younger when I watched it. I only truly remember seeing awesome monsters fighting each other and not the huge runtime or generally slow pace. And this film, 12 years on, sadly isn’t much different.
The story this time revolves around a group of scientists and a squad of soldiers tasked with travelling to the mysterious Skull Island in the hope of finding out more about what lives there. In making a prequel film based around Kong, however, there must have been a lot of pressure piled on these scriptwriters to extend not only the classic character but also introduce an element of mythology surrounding Kong. On top of that, the film throws together various characters such as tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson), photographer Weaver (Brie Larson) and scientist Randa (John Goodman). Reading this back, I realise this is me just listing the characters, but this is how the first act of the film introduces them all.
We begin with John Goodman (I’ll be using the actors’ names instead of their characters’ names because the characters all have little to no defining qualities save their professions) going to see a senator to get funding for an expedition to Skull Island, telling him that “the nuclear tests weren’t tests”, but instead they were “trying to kill something”. From here, the film jumps from location to location, picking up the relevant protagonists along the way. For me, the first act of the film in general is just too jumpy to truly be able to follow. Another example of this is the two-minute segment in which Toby Kebbell’s Major Whoever explains the mission to his fellow soldiers (and, in the use of the least subtle imagery possible, the audience) through 1973’s answer to PowerPoint. The fact that he spells everything out to the audience would have been alright had Kebbell not sped through the explanation: as soon as the scene changed, I realised I’d glossed over completely and zoned out halfway through.
The majority of human characters in this film are unlikeable, with exception perhaps of Brie Larson’s photographer (but that could just be down to the fact that she has very little to do in the film.) Tom Hiddleston plays a decommissioned military tracker whose only real distinctive trait is that he does an Action Man-style pose in every frame of the film that he is in, and sides for no logical reason with Samuel L Jackson’s army captain on every ridiculous idea that he proposes. Ignore the islander of 28 years (played by John C Reilly) who’s telling you not to walk into certain death? Check. Go back for a soldier who would have needed a miracle to survive on his own? Also check. Even when they find out the soldier has died, continue on the wrong path to go for the weapons cache in order to fight Kong? Triple check. It’s a shame that such a universally talented cast has been wasted on hammy dialogue and a laughably stupid plot.
For the most part, the visual effects are very good. Kong looks spectacular when first introduced to the audience, throwing and punching helicopters out of the sky. That is, despite the fact that Kong knows exactly which helicopters have main characters in so he can let those ones down lightly: the protagonists coming away with no more than a scratch or two. The majority of the soldiers might as well have been wearing Star Trek red shirts, they were that doomed. Nevertheless, I found myself always wanting Kong to be on screen, as he, a CGI gorilla monster, had more of a character than most if not all of the humans. The most interesting parts of the film are no doubt when Kong fights the variety of other monsters living on Skull Island; the best of these coming in the final act against what John C Reilly’s character calls a ‘Skullcrawler’.
To the film’s credit, it is shot very well, making the monster fights feel real and threatening. Cinematographer Larry Fong also manages to sneak in some shots that are reminiscent of another film set in the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). A good example of this is the shot of Kong rising and blocking out the sun as in the feature image, and I thought this was a suitable and smart reference to make. Sadly, though, this doesn’t really qualify as a ‘saving grace’ for the film as such, as the cinematography and monsters are the only true positives to take away.
Kong: Skull Island is, on the whole, a mess of a film. It tries to establish a new arc for Kong but I feel like this could have been done so much better. I believe this is also set in the same universe as Godzilla (2014) so perhaps they’re setting up some kind of crossover, but that’s for another time. If you’re only looking for big monsters fighting each other, then this film is perfect for you. But, any kind of second layer to it is nonexistent.