When it comes to monster films – the truly great ones – the film needs to balance its story with compelling characters, or a worthwhile metaphor. What is Alien without Ripley, or Jaws without Martin Brody? Is the Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla great without the nuclear war looming in the background, or is Cloverfield close to as interesting without 9/11 allusions galore? Kong: Skull Island believes that it has these elements in place: it is an Apocalypse Now-inspired 70s excursion that briefly comments on man versus nature and an incredible ensemble cast. Yet both are so half-heartedly placed inside a film that has little interest in anything other than the special effects spectacle at the story’s center.
In typical King Kong fashion, Kong: Skull Island begins with a ill-conceived journey to an island filled with unknown mysteries. Set in 1973, Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to set out to explore one of the last unknown spots on the globe, Skull Island, as the U.S. military is leaving Vietnam. To aid him in his visit to the island where “myth and science meet,” he assembles a team that includes Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Tom Hiddleston as tracker James Conrad (get it??). Soon after arriving on the eponymous Skull Island, the gigantic team drops bombs that remind of napalm in the morning, in order to track the geographic makeup of the undiscovered island. In doing so, they wake up Kong – who has grown significantly from past iterations (and is apparently still growing) – as well as a litany of other beasts unlike our adventurers have ever seen before.
Kong: Skull Island delivers on the beasts, as Kong is grander than we’ve ever seen, albeit maybe slightly inconsistent in size throughout the film. But Skull Island is also filled with creatures that camouflage themselves to their surroundings, such as a giant spider whose legs look similar to trees, or a rhino/log hybrid of sorts. There’s a creativity to the creature creation in Kong: Skull Island that is greatly missing from the rest of the film.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is most well-known for his great indie comedy The Kings of Summer. He has thrived in the comedy genre, directing episodes of You’re the Worst and the underrated T.J. Miller stand up series, Mash Up. But despite filling his cast with comedically gifted actors like Eugene Cordero and Marc Evan Jackson, Kong: Skull Island’s jokes often land with a thud. Kong’s cast mostly is relegated to looking in awe at the spectacle of Skull Island and/or getting smushed by its creatures. It is a shame, considering that Kong features plenty of performers deserving of a solid action franchise to sink their teeth into, but even Hiddleston, Larson, and a dozen or so other great actors can’t make the clunky dialogue work. The sole exception being John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a WWII pilot who has survived decades on Skull Island. Reilly is the only cast member that can make the humor work, and the film’s only character to truly root for (besides Kong.)
Kong: Skull Island’s four writers (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and John Gatins) should’ve led to better results than what the film gets. This crew of writers has led to films like Nightcrawler, The Fall, and Safety Not Guaranteed, but is also balanced out by other bland action films like Jurassic World, 2014’s Godzilla, and Real Steel. Kong: Skull Island has that feeling of striving for something far more ambitious, and has moments of real promise, but seems like it might’ve been overwritten into this mediocre script.
Kong: Skull Island deserves credit for not simply recreating the same Kong story we’ve seen in the past, instead engaging in the ecosystem of Skull Island and the mysteries within. When the film delves into this, it’s hard not to get wrapped into this world. But when Kong: Skull Island attempts to blend it’s one-note characters into the mix with the help of its muddled, metaphor-laden script, Kong’s bites off more than it can chew. Whereas the 1933 original brought in audiences with dazzling special effects and surprised with an emotionally-rich story, Kong: Skull Island only archives the former. There’s plenty of beauty, but Kong: Skull Island is mostly just an untamed beast.