Kong might be king of the jungle but he’s certainly not the king of keeping a tidy home. All those helicopter parts and body parts and skeleton lizard parts just lying around. That’s what happens when you don’t have parents or a Lady Kong to watch out for you. As far as monsters go, Kong is the bachelor of the group. He’s a loner. A rebel. A self-made ape. And, in terms of how long his kind lives, he’s probably just a teenager. And we know how awkward those teenage years can be for humans. Imagine how they are for a 60-story gorilla. I mean – they don’t make a banana large enough to satisfy you. Thank goodness you have all those skeleton lizards.
Kong: Skull Island is the latest incarnation of the “King Kong” story, this one fitting in nicely with the Godzilla universe established by Gareth Edwards a few years ago. Set at the close of the Vietnam War, a couple of scientists from a mysterious creature hunting company called Monarch (John Goodman & Corey Hawkins) piggyback on an expedition to explore Skull Island, a fabled land where myth and reality meet. Along for the ride are a team of soldiers let by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a mercenary-for-hire (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a whole lot of other characters that don’t matter (John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Tian Jing, etc.). When they arrive, they are greeted not so favorably by Kong, and decimated. The rest of the film is the characters attempting to get to the rendezvous point where they might be rescued – except for Colonel Packard, who wants to get his revenge on Kong. And then there are skeleton lizard things. And razor birds. Oh, and they run into John C. Reilly who has been stranded in the jungle since World War II.
You know what happens here. You know every step the story is going to take before it takes it. You know Kong is going to be seen as a threat, initially, but the characters are going to warm up to him when they realize he was just doing what apes do. And he is going to make a connection with a girl – and since Brie Larson is in the movie, you know that is going to be her. And you know Samuel L. Jackson is going to be Samuel L. Jackson and do what Samuel L. Jackson does, including the tease of his dropping his infamous “MF” bomb, which has really become tired at this point. What you probably didn’t expect is that Kong: Skull Island is, basically, a reboot of Congo. Except let’s call it Kongo. You’ve got John Goodman playing the crazy scientist (Tim Curry), Brie Larson playing the girl who gets to play with the boys (Laura Linney), Tom Hiddleston as the swashbuckler (Ernie Hudson), and even a lost tribe, though with less rhythm. That might be where the similarities end, but this film has that same sort of manic energy and B-movie adventure feel to it, the kind Frank Marshall tried to capture with Congo. The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, knew what he was doing here. And he deserves credit for delivering the studio a rather paint-by-numbers production while still managing to insert enough directorial flourishes to put his stamp on it.
Who is Jordan Vogt-Roberts, you ask? Well, he’s the director of a fun little indie flick called The Kings of Summer which cost less than two million dollars to make. The biggest star in it was Nick Offerman. Kong does not have Offerman’s acerbic wit. So how does Vogt-Roberts go from that to making a $100+ million epic? Who the hell knows. I am guessing other studios are starting to pick up on the Disney model, i.e. taking talented young indie filmmakers and giving them large budgets and carte blanche. It paid off here. Vogt-Roberts evokes a lot of familiar cinematic imagery here, from the numerous Apocalypse Now references to the gaggle of throwbacks to the original King Kong. I wish the script had served him and the film better. It’s not a stinker, but characters are not developed, and some of the conversations (particularly between the B-list soldiers) are irrelevant, uninspired, and corny as hell. This script suffers from character overload so that when a character we’ve spent a fair amount of time with dies, all we can think about is – “Can they move this along and get to the rendezvous?”
Of the characters we’re given, the only one with any complexity is Marlow, played by a scene stealing and Dr. Steve Bruhl-plugging John C. Reilly. He is given the most backstory, the most depth, and we find ourselves rooting for him more than anyone else, Kong included. That said, his performance is from a different film entirely. Neither Tom Hiddleston nor Brie Larson received the memo that they were in an adventure flick and that it was supposed to be fun. They both seem uncomfortable in the skins of their characters. John Goodman is having a blast but his character is the most mistreated of them all. He gets one fleeting moment where he tries to explain his motives and that story is interesting as hell. I wanted to know more. That could have been this film’s version of Quint telling his story in Jaws. It could have been something. Alas, we get nothing. That’s it. All we know about 90% of the characters in this film is their professions. And most of those are ‘soldier’. At least Thomas Mann does a good job of standing out in the group. He’s adorable and spunky and fun. But no development.
The man behind the camera here is Larry Fong. On the A-side of his resume are films like Super 8 and Watchmen. On the B-side is Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, one of the ugliest blockbusters I’ve ever seen. This is, by far, his standout achievement as a cinematographer. The visuals here are, at times, both brutal and stunning. Take, for example, the way he and Vogt-Roberts obsess over the frame of Kong – the way his dominating physical presence looms over the horizon, surrounded by flames. These are guys who clearly love and respect the Kong character and want to showcase him as much as possible. And they do. Anyone who thought we didn’t get enough Godzilla in Godzilla has nothing to complain about here. In fact, we see Kong to a fault. The CGI here is good…really good…but we’ve seen better. And, unfortunately, the Kong CGI starts to look like just that…CGI…because we see so much of him so much of the time. The apes in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy work because they are normal size. Here, it just pales in comparison. And you know Toby Kebbell is partially behind the motion capture work because he gets to play a character who serves no purpose and could have been written out.
Despite any negative feelings I have towards this film – it’s fun as hell. It checks off all the boxes that an entertaining blockbuster needs to check. But what separates the good ones, like Kong: Skull Island, from the great ones – like Jurassic Park – is that extra ‘wow factor’. It can come from the performances. It can come from plot developments the audience doesn’t expect. It can come from visuals. But visuals alone, unfortunately, aren’t enough. I wish the cast had been drinking the same juice as the director and cinematographer. I wish the need for humanizing the humans had meant as much as the need for humanizing Kong. But enough wishes. What I got was enough. Kong: Skull Island is better than it should have been but not as good as it deserved to be. I don’t blame the director. To go from a $2 million indie to this – he deserves a pat on the back. I think I blame my own expectations. And, as audience members, our expectations are just part of the deal. Not even Kong can wrestle those to the ground.