“Kong: Skull Island” is not a good film. It has groan-inducing dialogue, introduces us to a slew of characters we don’t care about, and eventually devolves into a film that ends with a CGI cartoon beating up another CGI cartoon, something I am quite frankly just bored with seeing. Whatever the limitations of practical effects may be, whether it’s the stop motion of the original “King Kong” or the rubber suits and animatronics of the 70s remake, there’s just something downright better when something that actually exists in the physical world is present on set when a movie is filming. That isn’t to say practical effects can’t be augmented with CGI, but when I see a film that expects me to be excited when a too-clean-too-shiny cartoon rips open another cartoon, I wonder if the filmmakers were only looking to impress 10-year-olds who have never seen a movie that was made before their birth.
Granted, I did not expect “Kong” to be a good film anyway, but I did expect it to be a fun B movie. There are a few scenes that live up to this expectation. The first key scene with Kong, the giant gorilla, taking out an entire formation of helicopters while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” blasts on the soundtrack is pretty killer, and would make for a fun 3D ride at Universal Studios some day. While 3D does have the tendency to make mediocre CG look better, I wasn’t particularly happy with the CG in this film, which looks less photo-real than the last few Pixar movies have looked. If the film can’t trick me into believing it’s eponymous character is actually there on screen, your effects are pretty much a failure. Regardless, we get that one scene, and another that takes place in a field of dust and skeletons that is visually interesting and kind of fun, even if the film breaks its own rules about the dangers of flammable objects (that flamethrower fires out in a perfect stream among all of the fumes?).
If there is a savior of this film, it is the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Not since maybe David Fincher’s “Alien 3” has a director done so much with so little. Vogt-Roberts has thus far been an indie director, having done one independent film, a few TV episodes, and some Funny or Die shorts. I understand why an up-and-coming director would sign on to a big budget effects film for career purposes, even if the script (and it took THREE people to write this thing, apparently) was sub par, but a lesser director would have phoned it in and done a just-good-enough job to get more work. Vogt-Roberts, however, seeing that this film took place at the tail end of the Vietnam era, probably said to himself “Fuck it, I’m gonna pretend I’m directing ‘Apocalypse Now'”, so we get a film with numerous visual (and soundtrack) callbacks to that seminal Vietnam War film by Coppola. “Kong: Skull Island” is one of the most well-directed, good-looking bad movies I’be seen in quite a while. Whatever problems this film has, it’s not the director’s fault.
The story involves a secret government agency, Monarch, that finds an uncharted island in the early 1970s. Why was the island uncharted? Because it’s constantly surrounded by storm systems, making it invisible to satellites. Okay. Wouldn’t CONSTANT STORMS actually draw MORE attention, and not less. The fact that a single area of the South Pacific has a storm system that NEVER GOES AWAY seems like the type of meteorological event that would draw thousands of scientists a year to that area to study it. In any case, the two Monarch officials, Bill (John Goodman, wasted in this film) and Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince a Senator to let them piggy back on a military squad doing one last mission before to the end of the war to chart the island now that they’ve found a temporary gap in the storm, allowing them access. Monarch claims they want geological data, but they are really looking for giant monsters. Why? I dunno, probably weapons. Governments always want to use monsters as weapons in films like this.
The Monarch guys hire a tracker, Conrad (a wasted Tom Hiddleston) to help them navigate the island. Conrad, I assume, is named after Joseph Conrad, the writer of “Heart of Darkness” of which “Apocalypse Now” is based. Sadly, Conrad is a bland, generic hero character of no discernible personality of interest. We also, for some reason probably to do with the lack of female characters, meet an anti-war photojournalist named Mason Weaver (a wasted Brie Larson), who is here to…document this secret government monster-hunting mission…I guess? Because a photographer whose work was done in the hopes of ending the government’s illegal and pointless war is the perfect choice to photograph a government’s covert and secret science mission? Don’t think about it too much. We do get one other female character, San Li (Jing Tian), another Monarch scientist who exists in the film only to be a love interest to Brooks.
The head of the military contingent leading them to the island is Col. Packard, played by Sam Jackson. Packard’s role in this film is a cross between Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick” and a caricature of every pro-War, military-loving Conservative you’ve ever met who thinks Chris Kyle was a hero. He’s the closest thing the film gives us to a non-monster villain, and he plays into the film’s super literal and obvious anti-imperialist message. See, the Vietnam war was doomed because America stuck its nose into a civil war it never should have gotten involved with. Many of Packard’s men are killed because Kong gets upset when his peaceful island is blown up by bombs from invading Americans. There’s also a line delivered about creating an enemy when there wasn’t one before. So the message, for contemporary audiences, is that if you invade a country and blow up parts of it, you can’t expect the citizens of that country to not, with good reason, hate you. I appreciate and agree with the message, but it’s delivered so ham-fistedly and inelegantly that it makes the “Purge” movies looks subtle. At least the “Purge” series is SUPPOSED to be blatant, being satire and all. “Kong” just ends up looking amateurish and obvious, yet I’m sure many American audiences won’t bother to even see that surface message.
So they bomb the island, the bombs unleash lizard-monsters who live below the surface, and Kong is mad as the lizard monsters killed his family and he hates them. So, Kong kills a lot of the military, Packard wants revenge, and the other surviving humans just want to get off the island and see Kong correctly as the island’s protector and that they, the invading humans, were truly in the wrong. That’s our story.
Oh, but we do get one shining star in this film, and that is John C. Reilly playing Hank Marlow, a solider who crash landed on Skull Island during WWII and has been living there ever since. Reilly is the only actor in this thing who realizes, or at least acknowledges, that he is in a piece of crap, and thus he’s the only actor who seems to be having fun. He’s the film’s center of humor, and he hams it up with everything he has to offer. He’s the most interesting character, the one most fun to watch, and he single-handledly raises the quality of the film every time he’s on screen.
How much you like the film will depend on how much tolerence you have for mediocre CGI and bad dialogue, and how much of those you are willing to forgive based on the director’s ingenuity and visual flair, and Reilly’s performance. Personally, this film occupies an uneasy middle ground. It is not silly or stupid enough to be fun in a bad Syfy Channel creature feature way, but it’s not nearly good enough to be enjoyable as, you know, an actual good movie that just happens to have giant monsters in it. “Kong: Skull Island” is just weak. An A-list cast and a clearly talented director are absolutely wasted. I weep for the better films that all of these people could have spent months making if their time wasn’t tied up making THIS.
I might have had more respect for “Kong: Skull Island” if it had the balls to be as stupid as “Sharknado”. Instead, it’s a pretty bore with two good sequences and one interesting and fun character. What a waste. C