The fun but exhausting Kong: Skull Island should be successful enough with most viewers keen to see a wildly different take on everyone’s favourite massive ape, but it’s also a film that’s so deeply in love with its own sense of scale and cleverness that it will probably annoy just as many people as it enthralls. Overall, it ends up mostly in positive territory, but the first major studio blockbuster from American indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) expends a maximum amount of effort to get there, and not always in the best possible ways. It is a film that was constantly in danger of losing my interest and trying my patience, but thankfully I never felt put off by it entirely. I could never sit through this thing again, but for what it is as a single viewing, it’s fine.
The year is 1973, and on the final day of the American war in Vietnam, scientific researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman) is given the green light to lead an expedition to the notoriously uncharted and potentially hazardous Skull Island in the South Pacific. Randa and his band of scientists make their way to the island with a full military escort – led by the gradually unhinging Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a former British Special Forces tracker turned mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) and a pacifist photojournalist (Brie Larson) who smells something fishy about the journey. When they arrive on the island, they drop some “seismic charges” in an effort to flush something out, drawing the ire of Kong, a behemoth simian capable of tossing helicopters around like ragdolls and sloppily munching on giant squid like a three year old at an all you can eat pasta buffet. The scientists and military grunts become separated on the island after Kong attacks their aerial armada, with one group learning from a stranded pilot that’s been on the island since World War II (John C. Reilly) that Kong is a benevolent protector of the island and its inhabitants. The other crew – the one led by Randa and Packard – wants to kill the monster out of revenge. Despite the opposing views on Kong, the island is a dangerous enough place without the giant ape, and the charges they dropped have awoken a far deadlier presence than the soldiers and scientists could have imagined.
Taken on its own basic terms as a fast paced, action packed, blockbuster monster movie, Kong: Skull Island delivers the goods. Whenever there’s a giant monster rampaging about and the heroes and villains alike have to figure out how to stop it, Roberts’ film roars to life. In terms of technical acumen and casting, Kong: Skull Island is an embarrassment of riches. Kong (played here nicely by actors and motion capture veterans Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell, the latter of whom also plays a grunt separated from the two main crews) and the assorted other giant creatures roaming Skull Island are dazzling and appropriately terrifying. They’re integrated nicely into the landscapes around them, with most of the film’s key set pieces happening in daylight instead of under the cover of night or rain to cover up potential digital shortcomings. Frequent Zach Snyder collaborator Larry Fong also proves to be an inspired choice of cinmatographer here, allowing the camera to dwell long enough on these creatures – even in kinetic, fast paced action sequences – so the viewer can take in a remarkable amount of detail, and those fine touches are enhanced by some top notch 3D effects. As a technical achievement, Kong: Skull Island never fails to impress, but if you’re one of those people who were annoyed that the Godzilla reboot didn’t have enough of the lizard monster in it, you’ll be similarly (and wrongly) annoyed here.
Equally noteworthy is the cast assembled by Roberts, which stops just short of seeming overqualified for such an endeavour. No one plays an arrogant, power hungry buffoon like Goodman. Few people can play driven and crazy like Jackson. Few leading actors are as charismatic and genial as Hiddleston and Larson. Reilly gets a chance to put his comedic sensibilities to great use here, and also gets the action movie hero moment that has been sorely missing from his acting C.V. Character actors Shea Wigham, John Ortiz, and Richard Jenkins all pop up here and put in great work. The only problem with including this much talent under the same banner is that many of them – particularly Hiddleston and Larson – come across like afterthoughts when so much is happening around them. Everyone gets their spots in, but some of those spots feel shoehorned in to give everyone something to do instead of feeling like a natural, organic part of the story. There are so many characters and personalities on display here that Kong: Skull Island can’t feel anything other than clunky whenever the action lets up.
The biggest failing of Kong: Skull Island, however, is a chronic inability to leave well enough alone. Not content to merely be a fun popcorn flick, Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (the 2014 Godzilla reboot, which Kong is severely indebted to), and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World, which is the only film Roberts’ is more indebted to than Godzilla) always have to nudge and shove the audience with relentlessly pointless stabs at profundity and self-reflection. The dialogue, plotting, and even the names of the characters all point back to history, literature, and other films. Kong: Skull Island can’t go thirty seconds without making reference to something that came before it, either through visuals or the narrative, and to try and catch them all becomes more numbing and exhaustive than any number of explosions could ever be.
The entirety of Kong: Skull Island is an unsubtle, in-your-face, dunderheaded riff on Vietnam era politics with lines like, “We didn’t lose the war. We abandoned it.” If one created a drinking game out of the references to Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket on display here, they would die of alcohol poisoning within seconds of the crews getting to the island. There are nods that no one thought the Nixon presidency could ever be topped in terms of Washington wackiness. The screenwriters seem to have entered into a bet with Jackson that he couldn’t find a way to reference every film he made throughout his career in the same movie, going as far as making his character say “Hold onto your butts” and making him enunciate certain threats like he’s Ordell Robbie from Jackie Brown. Hiddleston’s character is literally named after Heart of Darkness writer Joseph Conrad. Obvious references are fine when used sparingly, but when each hits with the subtlety of a two ton gorilla, the experience of having to sit through such glad-handing amongst the writing staff threatens to become more punishing than novel or clever.
It’s a film so enamoured by its own cleverness that it almost forgets that it’s already making a good movie that doesn’t need to try nearly as hard to keep our interests. It also doesn’t help that Roberts has a limited bag of stylistic tricks that he employs repeatedly, almost to the point of self-parody, including countless smash cuts, people literally cueing up instantly recognizable, period appropriate rock songs for characters to comment on, and people looking like badasses while standing in front of towering infernos. I know that Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, but there’s a fine line between lazy and reflexive that Roberts uncomfortably straddles far too often.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t much more than a riff on the same ground previously covered by the Jurassic Park franchise, but if that’s all you want, you’ll get every penny of your money’s worth. It’s also worth it just to watch a cast of this size clearly having a ball playing in Kong’s sandbox. The much whispered about post-credits stinger is a bit of a letdown, mostly because if you think about what it’s trying to do even for a second, it doesn’t make a lick of logical or narrative sense, but that still doesn’t kill the good vibes and good will I have towards the film’s better moments. Kong: Skull Island isn’t a great movie, but it’s a decent enough B-movie made with A-list talents. Like a motion picture based ride at a theme park, it’s fun to sit through at least once in your life. But just like Peter Jackson tried to do over a decade ago and producer Dino De Laurentiis tried to do in the 1970s, Roberts’ repackaging of King Kong feels like overkill. In the moment, Kong: Skull Island is fun, but that moment quickly passes.