Movie Review: KONG: SKULL ISLAND – mostly enjoyable franchise reboot, but lack of strong characters don’t do the fantastic visuals any favours

I don’t know exactly how old I was when I saw the original King Kong, but I couldn’t have been any older than five.  I recall with reasonable vividness sitting in front of our black and white TV in the Springburn neighbourhood of Glasgow, Scotland, absolutely enthralled by the sheer spectacle, the charm, of the 1933 production that heralded a new era of moviemaking.  There is likely nobody in the western world who doesn’t know King Kong – even if they have never seen the original, Kong exists among the pantheon of famous movie monsters, along with Godzilla, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Frankenstein, and Dracula, to name a few.  Kong has a place in our hearts because he reminds us as ourselves.  Possessed of a humanistic sense of justice and primal strength, Kong represents us – stripped of the daily bullshit and phoniness that we all succumb to, Kong is us laid bare, and mostly shat on by the kind of assholes we have to deal with now and then.  Too high and mighty an opinion for you?  Not a problem – Kong also works as a spectacle monster movie, even when the scripts are no good, the nature of the beast guarantees battles between colossal creatures to feed the eyes.

I didn’t watch many of the other Kong movies (there aren’t a lot), but I did watch the mediocre remakes in 1976 and 2005.  While I was still too young to have well rounded opinions of the Jeff Bridges & Jessica Lange 70s movie, I had high hopes for Peter Jackson’s version, but I was let down by Jackson’s  – by then –  chronic inability to end scenes.  The Jackson version is an egregious example of self-indulgence on film, with scenes that extend well past the point of reason, resulting in a bloated, fatty movie that’s a lot easier to admire from a technical standpoint than it is to enjoy as a theatrical experience.  A badly miscast Naomi Watts (Shut In) does little to cancel out Jackson’s overstuffed approach to the material, and in the end the whole things feels like a mostly pointless retread.

Skip ahead twelve years (Twelve!  Already!) to Kong: Skull Island, and the choice to watch it this morning was more to do with the fact that I appear to have missed A Cure For Wellness theatrically than having genuine excitement to see it.  Good thing my wife was up for it, or I may just have skipped it altogether until my copy arrived.  I hadn’t really been tracking the production much.  I knew of Sam Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, and Brie Larson, but I was surprised by the director job going to Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a relative newcomer with only one feature under his belt – 2013’s Kings of Summer.  How do you go from a little known coming of age dramedy to a $175 million plus genre Q1 tentpole feature, with a cast of top B talent?  Could have been a disaster, but it actually isn’t.

Skull Island is, if you haven’t heard, ostensibly the second movie in prodco Legendary’s “MonsterVerse”, with 2014’s Godzilla being the first.  I had no idea then I was watching the first in a shared universe series, and maybe it wasn’t conceived of as anything other than the first of a rebooted Godzilla franchise.  For anyone who hasn’t yet seen Skull Island, stay through the credits for the connecting scene between these new Kong and Godzilla movies.

I liked Kong a LOT more than Godzilla.  While Brian Cranston yelled, “It’s going to send us back to the Stone Age” during a portentous, apocalyptic trailer, the movie itself succumbed to Pacific Rim stupidity, devolving into empty big monster spectacle, and I was pretty much prepared for Skull Island to do the same, but it has more good things going for it – one of which being that Kong is featured prominently very early on the movie.  Other monster movies take their time with the reveal – Godzilla 2014 being a prime example – but Skull Island takes the logical approach that everybody who goes to see it already knows who and what Kong is.  It’s a good decision, considering that the rest of the movie doesn’t have a particularly engaging plot.  After this prologue, the interesting title credit sequence takes us from the tail-end of WW2 to the Vietnam-era present-time of the movie, and introductions to almost all of the main cast, which also includes Toby Kebbell (A Monster Calls and Fantastic Four), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane).  John C. Reilly (Life After Beth) appears in the second half of Act 2 in a major role, which is also the most enjoyable of the movie.  Goodman who works for MONARCH, a low-funded, little known department of the US Government that is tracking giant monstrous species using a hollow-Earth theory, secures funding for an expedition to a newly discovered South Pacific island, and gets a military escort in the form of a Bell-Huey unit led by Sam Jackson.  The plot essentially divides the air force team from the civilians by means of a knockout scene featuring Kong, and from that point on there’s not a lot of meat on the bones.  Jackson’s arc is a weak, Ahab-lite subplot, and Hiddleston’s British Special Forces-turned specialized “tracker” is similarly sketched and bland.

The character work here isn’t terrible, though – it’s ccomparable to similar high concept movies like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  Audiences deserve strong characters even in plot-driven movies, but it rarely happens – at least in Skull Island, I liked most of the characters, and they all had reasonable motivations, but I just wanted more stuff to elevate them beyond ciphers, and make me care what happened to them.  As in previous Kong movies, Kong is the character that’s meant to engage the audience, and he does this here too, but I felt it was at the expense of trying to create stronger characters.  The human characters all seem to operate at the same level of audience engagement, with nothing about them that really stands out – with the exception of Reilly.  His character is the obvious comedic element, but he’s also a solid presence, and his appearance prevents the movie from becoming a humourless spectacle.

And spectacle it is – the movie looks fantastic, from the Hawaiian sets to the cinematography, to the production design, to Kong himself.  The visuals were the part of the movie I enjoyed most.  The Kong action scenes are incredibly well rendered, especially in the end battle with the Big Bad – it’s easily going to be one of the best looking genre movies of the year.  In terms of tone I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a sense of weirdness permeating the movie, as the plot alone suggests a great deal of weirdness.  An early scene with a giant, tree-borne spider is good, but could have been great, and an early confrontation between Kong and a giant octopus-like creature has a great ending, but could easily have been longer and stranger.  As it is, Vogts-Roberts deals with a script that’s kind of by the numbers, and that’s exactly the kind of movie he delivers.

3.5/5.0

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