Ever since RKO’s 1933 fantasy classic, King Kong has been a staple in contemporary culture. Apologies to all the Godzilla fans out there, but Kong is and always will be the definitive movie monster. So it was always going to be the case that studios, in this reboot/remake/franchise era, were going to take a hold of the colossal ape and liquidate his legend into a big-budget franchise kick-starter. And so, here we have Kong: Skull Island, a spiritual successor to 2014’s Godzilla; two films that are hoped to propel a new Monster Movie franchise for Legendary Pictures.
And yet, as an avid film lover, eager to judge each film by its own merits, I approached Kong: Skull Island with an open mind, hoping that it would provide a fresh take on a character that has been adopted by directors as varied as Merian C. Cooper, Peter Jackson, even the original Godzilla’s Ishirō Honda. And so this time, it falls to Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an up-and-coming filmmaker whose most notable contribution is 2013’s The Kings of Summer. With this minor independent credit to his name, maybe Vogt-Roberts could bring an unbiased, character-rich spectacle, one that challenges the conventional, special-effect orgies we’re used to seeing.
To a certain extent, Vogt-Roberts succeeds. Changing the time frame – set during the close of the Vietnam war – as well providing an abundance of fresh faces, including Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, Kong: Skull Island’s surface appears renewed and inviting.
However, don’t let the gloss fool you: this isn’t the original blockbuster you were hoping for. While its entertainment value cannot be denied, there is some spark missing, a lack of ambitious flair in trying to counter-act the chaotic spectacles of recent years.
Now there are definite positives here. For one, the cinematography is beautiful: Larry Fong and Vogt-Roberts’ work is stellar here, capturing all manner of colours and shades in crafting a film that poses as a real visual love letter to the classic Apocalypse Now. One particular sequence, involving an attack on a helicopter convoy, is thrillingly shot, with a Nixon bobblehead satirically nodding in approval of the chaos occurring all around.
Furthermore, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson make far more of their rather slim roles than the film requires. Reilly adds the comic relief, as well as a real burst of warmth, while Jackson acts as his opposite number, playing a sinister, war-obsessed military general, who straddles on the line of excessive villainy, yet remains just believable enough to stick by him.
And of course, the Kong sequences deliver in terms of eye-popping extravagance. Heads are clubbed, monsters are thrown, humans swatted. Kong is realized in supreme detail, and while his anthropomorphic resonance has been somewhat lost since Andy Serkis’ portrayal in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, Terry Notary’s work is to be commended, giving the ape a formidable and towering presence.
However, all of these praiseworthy traits cannot disguise the feeling that this could have been so much more than it is. The most glaring issue is in the characterization and the immediate sense of detachment with the human element of the story. While Reilly and Jackson deliver notable presences, Hiddleston, Larson and John Goodman are all but wasted in roles that do little to flesh out the world, the characters or their relationship to the events on screen. While many may throw the monster-movie card at me, unfortunately, films such as Jackson’s King Kong demonstrate that there is time and reason to the development of human characters within these kinds of movies. Despite the feeling of awe and excitement at seeing Kong, there is a fundamental disconnect due to his animalistic persona. It is with the human characters and their reactions to Kong that we get our identification, our through line to the action on screen. And unlike Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrian Brody in that 2005 film, these characters do not seem at all unnerved or amazed by the events unfolding before their eyes. Instead, they’re just stereotypes, grabbing hold of the lead to pull us along to the next action set-piece. The most glaring example of this comes in one scene involving Toby Kebbell. The highly underrated Kebbell has drawn the short straw here, featured in one scene involving a Kong fight that comes out of left field: considering how we’ve had little time to get to know Kebbell, the fact that we’re meant to identify with his viewpoint, watching the fight unfold, we feel little for what is happening. It’s just a cool fight, totally random, ultimately pointless.
I may seem like I’m being pretentious; after all, it’s a movie about a giant ape punching monsters in the face. But, ultimately, I think there needs to be a human element to any film. We need characters to follow, to guide us in terms of our emotional expectations, our reactions to certain moments. And unfortunately, Kong: Skull Island leaves us cold in this regard. All the flashy effects and fight scenes are entertaining on a pure spectacle level. But there’s no investment in the action: how can I relate to Hiddleston and Larson’s sympathy for the mighty ape, if I have little sympathy towards them in the first place?
Some references are also glaringly obvious. The Vietnam setting is fresh and inviting, but too many moments shed a really blunt and ineffective light on the ideologies of the time, the desire for warfare. One such moment involves the reflection of flames within the aviators of a military pilot, which just suffers as a somewhat clunky callback to the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone.
Ultimately, I do admire the ambition of Vogt-Roberts in his endeavor here. There is real scale to the action, and Kong’s physical form is daunting, as it should be. The change of time and setting is refreshing and got me geared up for a new take on this classic adventure. However, by clicking on that refresh button, Vogt-Roberts forgot to save the character motivations of King Kong movies past. While in previous films, we’ve tagged along with some really memorable characters, this time, we’re not left with a whole lot to relate to. Despite the efforts of Reilly and Jackson, it all comes off feeling like a thoroughly entertaining fireworks display without a human soul in sight.
If spectacle is what you want, fill your boots and indulge. However, after the action-packed yet emotionally fulfilling Logan, Kong: Skull Island comes off feeling a little unsure of itself.