Kong: Skull Island | Jordan Vogt-Roberts | March 10, 2017
Kong is back and bigger than ever. This is quite literally true in Kong: Skull Island, the latest remake of King Kong, built within the new Marvel-esque monster universe that started in 2014 with Gareth Edwards’ polarizing (if not underrated) take on Godzilla, that should put the two big monsters against one another for a Batman v Superman level monster throwdown.
It’s 1971, near the end of the grueling Vietnam war, and government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) and scientist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are eager to land on the mysterious uncharted Skull Island so they can drop bombs in order to map the geological interior of the island. They enlist the help of tracker and former British Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who they find partying in a rather questionable dive bar, the perfect man for a rather questionable mission.
The rest of the team is rounded out with brute force by the way of the Sky Devils, a Vietnam helicopter team led by the battle hungry Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Mills (Jason Mitchell), and Silvko (Thomas Mann). Last but not least, there’s photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an anti-war photographer, who goes for the ride knowing that there’s something awry with the mission.
The helicopter squad flies onto the storm-ridden skyline of Skull Island, and it doesn’t take too many dropped bombs for Kong to get the message. It’s time to thin the disposable cast. It doesn’t take more than 30 minutes for Kong to arrive and wreck havoc on these characters (calling them heroes would be giving the thin script written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly way too much credit), which will please those who were frustrated by the “less is more” approach demonstrated in Godzilla. We get a real good look at Kong and he’s an absolute mammoth creature in this version, one that should please fans quite a bit.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is the latest director to be plucked from the indie world, brought on board this major production after the success of his debut feature, The Kings of Summer in 2013. Roberts delivers the action in a rather stunning fashion with many stunning visuals to boot. Kong is a rip-roaring beast, who absolutely destroys the Sky Devils crew, leaving only a good chunk of the A-list actors alive in fend for themselves for the horrors that await them on the island, such as vicious skull crawlers. Vogt-Roberts stirs up some great action images, including a most memorable shot of Conrad chopping pterodactyl-like creatures with a sword, while wearing a gas mask. It’s these time of indulgent dives into B-movie action that the film is at its best.
What drags it down is a hit or miss script that doesn’t do its talented cast any favors. The cast is stacked with familiar faces, yet you’ll have trouble remembering anyone’s name or surface level traits. While it may be the point in a movie like this when they’re about to become creature food, it still becomes a lingering issue when you couldn’t care less about what happens to most of the cast. The only character that shines through is Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who’s been stranded on the island for 28 years, played to perfection by John C. Reilly. I had my reservations about his role from the preview footage, but he’s given a real backstory and you slowly but surely develop a connection for him. Reilly is the only one whose comedic chops work, while all the other instances (mainly between Whigham and Mitchell) fall flat. All the performances are fine, but considering the names involved here, it’s too bad they weren’t given a bit more to chew on.
The 70’s Vietnam era is appropriate for the film, with the obvious connection between Americans vs Kong standing in for our battle with the Vietnam natives, as well as the war itself. Vogt-Roberts shamelessly inserts odes to Vietnam classics such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon and goes as far as to even using songs from who else but Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane.
Kong: Skull Island is a fun action flick mainly because of the indulgent action sequences which are admittedly entertaining as all hell and shot in some interesting ways. I only wish that more of an attempt was made to develop at least a few of the characters, so we have at least some real investment in watching them try to survive the mayhem.
Like so many tentpoles with their eye towards the big prize of future sequel installments, the reality is Kong: Skull Island is just a means to the end of the eventual giant showdown between Kong and Godzilla. I just wish it took the time to focus on itself some more, because with such a capable young director like Vogt-Roberts, it’s a bit of a shame that he doesn’t get to truly explore the capabilities of a true standalone Kong movie without the restrictions that ultimately come when you’re trying to build a new franchise.