Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island is the type of big summer blockbuster audiences crave, except that this is still winter. He gets the blockbuster part right, however, thanks to excellent CGI and the big lug at the heart of the film. King Kong has always connected with audiences in his various incarnations, not because he is big and powerful, but rather that he is an innocent wronged by greedy humans who wish to exploit.
Nothing against Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (chewing more scenery than Kong as Colonel Preston Packard), and Brie Larson (award-winning photographer Mason Weaver) and the rest of the human cast, but this is Kong’s movie. Part of the problem is that Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein have made the human cast so one dimensional, with little exploration of their characters. Only John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow (a World War II pilot who crashed on the island and has been marooned there for 28 years) is given a back story and lines that make him somewhat interesting.
Kong: Skull Island seems to be something like the child of Predator and Land of the Lost. The CGI action scenes featuring Kong in battle against various other oversized creatures – who knew the big ape enjoyed eating giant calamari – are the best parts of the film. The humans fall into various kinds of stock characters, and I am not sure if the writers were playing with idea of giving them more to do or not, but particularly Larsen’s Weaver seems lost and has a perplexed rather than a frightened expression on her beautiful face as she gazes at these gigantic beasts, making us wonder if she too doesn’t have clue as to her character’s motivation.
Without giving too much away, the cold opening involves Marlow and a Japanese pilot (Miyavi) crashing on Skull Island during World War II. As they battle each other on the ground, they are interrupted by the roar and then the enormous face of King Kong staring at them, which sort of changes the playing field.
Flash forward to 1973 and Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) go to Washington D.C. to see a senator to try to raise funds for an expedition to the unchartered Skull Island. After some wrangling they get their money, and since the Vietnam War is ending they get a military escort in the form of Packard and his men, who should be going home but sign on for one more mission. Randa and Brooks also bring Conrad along for his expertise in tracking, and Weaver is hoping to chronicle the action and gain more notoriety. Of course, we’re thinking she is the requisite blonde we have known since Fay Wray and that Kong is going to have to walk around with her in his huge paw at some point – which, of course, he does.
The rest of the story pretty much is textbook action fare, except that it all looks so wonderful. Chris Brenczewski’s special effects along with Larry Fong’s cinematography paint a beautiful lost world indeed, and there has never been a more believable Kong in the fluidity of his movements, the hair raising on his neck, the steam of breath coming from his mouth, and the benevolence of his beautiful eyes that makes us know he is no monster.
There is some attempt to make Packard a kind of Ahab figure and Kong his Moby Dick, but there is just not enough in the script for any of it to seem valid. Hiddleston and Larson look great but lack any chemistry, and the best moments are when Kong realizes that all humans are not bad and acts way more humane than Randa and Packard possibly could.
Besides Kong there are a slew of other enormous beasts on this island – a battle with giant spiders is perhaps the best sequence of humans fighting back – but most of the time the characters get in each other’s way and do things that make no sense. Packard’s insistence on finding one lost man is not only illogical but foolish, and the only excuse could be that Ahab thing, but it doesn’t work for me.
Clearly this is Kong’s show and, while he could have pounded his chest and roared a few more times, Kong and his interaction with the other spectacular beasts is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, when the most frightening thing in the movie is a Richard Nixon bobble-head on a helicopter dashboard, you know something is missing.
Still, due to the great depiction of Kong, I give Kong: Skull Island two out of four bananas. I just hope Kong doesn’t get too comfortable because I have a feeling that a formidable opponent named Godzilla may be darkening the shores of his island in the near future. If that pairing occurs, can Mothra be far behind?