It's tempting to think that KONG: SKULL ISLAND was written as a quasi-apology to the dissatisfied people who purchased tickets for Gareth Edwards' 2014 GODZILLA thinking it would be some kind of epic monster-filled fight fest. It's also tempting to think that KONG: SKULL ISLAND was written in an attempt to erase Peter Jackson's wistful, misguidedly romantic remake from memory. The Kong in Jackson's film was written as a lovelorn, tragic figure, an oversized gorilla with a heart of gold. The Kong director Jordan Vogt-Roberts offers up here is the Cooper-Schoedsack monster on steroids and thankfully the film isn't stingy with his appearances, more than making up for the lack of monster action in Edwards' otherwise superb reboot.
It's also a Vietnam allegory, a fact it simply will not allow you to forget as it pummels you with anti-war rock and roll, and images lifted straight from other anti-Vietnam films like APOCALYPSE NOW. Given the year the film takes place in, the allegory fits, but I must admit it seems odd to be watching a KING KONG reboot made in 2017 that relies heavily on anti-Vietnam sentiment for its subtext. I have to wonder if that was the only thing they could think to do with the film in the writer's room.
And to be honest, the moment to moment writing of the film is its weakest attribute. It's a simple story. Mere days after the US announces that it will be abandoning Vietnam, a war-loving commander is hired to escort some wet behind the ears scientists to an uncharted island. Once they arrive by helicopter, seismic bombs are dropped to help map the guts of the place, an unfortunate choice of scientific instrumentation that draws the ire of Kong, a massive ape-like monster. In short order, helicopters are destroyed and our band of adventurers are split. One group, headed by Sam Jackson's cranky “kill 'em all” military alpha male, decides to put killing Kong at the top of their bucket list. The other, which includes Tom Hiddleston's suave British tracker and Brie Larson's tough anti-war photographer, just wants off the damn rock. Our second group meets the traditional band of Skull Island natives, here playing host to John C. Reilly's Hank, a World War II pilot that crashed on the island well over 25 years ago.
And that's your dichotomy, folks. One group is out for blood and the other just wants to leave nature as it is and head home. The interplay between the two groups never reaches its full potential and things are not so much worked out between the two, either by fisticuffs or heated debate, as continually interrupted by all kinds of nasty beasties who eye up our cast like they were items on a well stocked buffet.
And I said “cast” rather than “characters” because all the personalities on display here are thin, if not wholly transparent. The actors chosen to fill the roles were clearly cast because of the attitudes and personalities we often associate with them. You don't really need to spend time building the character of the stern and blood frenzied Preston Packard when you can just hire Sam Jackson to do that heavy lifting for you. Need a relatable, kindly father figure for your film? Just hire John Goodman. Need a sexy Brit who can charm the audience? Hire Tom Hiddleston. Need a pretty Chinese actress to satisfy your Chinese investors? I think you get the idea.
In that respect, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not going to pacify the people who felt that GODZILLA was full of understated, if not downright boring, characters. That isn't to say that the people we spend time with on Skull Island are uninteresting or even dull. They're just not well rounded. No one has an arc. Everyone leaves (well, not everyone; people die by the truckload here) just as they came. They're not audience surrogates. They're moving targets for larger than life monsters with insatiable appetites.
And that is why I will say that KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a tale of two films. Because once the monster stuff started happening, every single complaint I had went straight out the window and the film became astoundingly great fun.
There's an undeniable appeal to watching one large thing beat the snot out of another large thing, but KONG: SKULL ISLAND isn't all ape-on-lizard action. What would a trip to Skull Island be without a giant spider, adorably large buffalo, some prehistoric pteranodon-like flying creatures and the occasional enormous octopus? The “new” threat introduced in the film (and I say “new” because they're more or less just a re-imagined version of the two legged lizard thing that threatened Bruce Cabot after Kong tossed his friends into a ravine) are the skull crawlers, all tooth, claw and tongue. They're great monsters, unique in design, but familiar enough to bring back those old childhood memories of Kong tussling with a tyrannosaurus. The monster action is surprisingly nasty at times too, with people having their limbs torn off, being crushed against rocks and, in my favorite scene of the entire film, being impaled from mouth to ass, a la CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.
|Behold! The first skull crawler.
The decision to untether Kong from his previous big screen adventures allows the filmmakers to reinvent the character as a kind of ferocious guardian angel. One moment, he's crushing gun toting soldiers to death, the next he's carefully lifting a crashed helicopter off a poor, struggling giant buffalo. Naturally, we have the requisite scene of Kong looking in awe at the gorgeous white woman standing in front of him and there is a nice call back to the 1933 original when Kong accidentally gets himself wrapped up in chains, but for the most part, Kong feels less like a rehashed character and more like a brand new imagining. We feel something for Kong because, like all good heroes, he's an orphan, the last of his kind. But we never once forget that Kong is, above all else, a wild animal, both frightening and majestic in equal proportion.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that this Kong will be as fondly remembered as his previous incarnations, if only because this Kong doesn't get shot off a skyscraper. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is meant to be the second entry in a much larger cinematic universe, one that will soon include Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah. As such, the film doesn't feel like its complete. It feels like its missing something, some kind of resolution that would make the film resonate long after you've left the theater. Helicopters crash, some people die, some people leave. That's pretty much it. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a damn great roller coaster ride that you get on, have a few screams and a nice, big adrenaline rush, and then get off and move on with your day. It needed something more and for the life of me, I can't really pinpoint what that something more is.
I can only say this: for the better part of two hours, I was hugely entertained. I ate my fill and then some. But an hour later, I was hungry all over again.