Kong: Skull Island Review
Kong: Skull Island (2017) Film Review, a movie directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, and Marc Evan Jackson.
You would think that it’s hard to mess up a monster movie, and truth be told it is. As a lifelong B-movie addict, I can attest to the fact that what viewers like us want is nothing more than convincing scares, a coherent storyline, and memorable monsters. Interesting characters are certainly welcome, and social and political analysis and commentary don’t hurt, but only if they are handled competently and done in a way that doesn’t detract from the primary reason that we’re there: namely, to see something shock or at least momentarily unnerve us. Yet even counting this soft bigotry of low expectations in its favor, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and presents us with that most pitiful of sci-fi and horror films: a failed one. Failed, not because the director and crew didn’t try, but because they tried too hard.
Much of the film’s inadequacy derives from its inability to decide if it wants to be a creature feature influenced by 1970’s movies or an extended homage to post-Vietnam War cinema that happens to have monsters in it. Set in the wake of Richard Nixon’s decision to evacuate all US forces remaining in South Vietnam, Kong proudly traces its cinematic lineage to Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and other war movies and makes no apologies for it. The generous, perhaps gratuitous, use of slow-motion recalls Oliver Stone’s use of the same effect for the tragic death of Willem Dafoe in the latter film, while the awe-inspiring sight of the expedition’s Huey helicopters cruising against a sunset sky when they first come cross the titular beast deliberately evokes, as others have abundantly pointed out, Apocalypse‘s iconic theatrical poster more so than any actual scene in the Coppola classic (as others, to my limited knowledge, have not pointed out).
As flattering as it is to be reminded of these other movies that the viewer has presumably already watched, they do little to increase their overall appreciation of the one they’re actually watching at the moment. For the most part, these nods do not advance our understanding of the characters or story itself but rather seem to be made to lampshade the fact that it takes place in the 70’s, with the dialogue and music awkwardly hammering this point throughout. Hearing Jefferson Airplane and The Chambers Brothers near the start of the film is a nice enough touch, but chances are you’ll be yelling “Alright I get it, it’s the 70’s! I grew up listening to K-EARTH 101 too,” at the screen by the time the characters are blaring Black Sabbath over their choppers’ speakers.
On the topic of characters, one of the main complaints leveled against Godzilla, the first entry in Legendary Pictures‘ Monsterverse, was that there was little time for the actors (with the possible exception of Bryan Cranston) to develop their roles into anything truly substantial. Skull Island, on the other hand, has the exact opposite problem. It spends too much time on its characters even as it fails to develop in any way that justifies the excess attention given to them. Not only that, but the rate at which we are introduced to characters, given some quirky information about them that is apparently supposed to substitute for actual development, and allowed to forget about them until they conveniently reappear and are promptly stomped, gobbled up, or otherwise disposed of by the monsters suggests that many of them exist solely to be killed. Information takes precedence over interaction, and even our nominal heroes are affected by this inverted storytelling method.
In spite of having probably more screentime than any of their co-stars, Tom Hiddleston’s ex-SAS hunter and Brie Larson’s peacenik photojournalist are unable to achieve even a flicker of the necessary chemistry for them to make a convincing couple, much less carry the film. Wily Monarch scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) hardly fares better, with the movie spending its first half building him up to be the primary protagonist only for it to have him unceremoniously eaten by a reptilian Skullcrawler that gets the drop on him, almost if it suddenly decided that it was bored with him and wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible. The closest thing to a rounded character is Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard, the Army commander who becomes obsessed with taking down Kong after the great ape kills several of his men during their first encounter. As the beast crushes the team’s Hueys’ like flies and turns the surrounding area into an inferno, he notices one of the puny humans standing their ground even as the others flee for their lives. Adopting Kong’s point of view, we cut to an extreme close-up shot of Packard, burning with rage and indifferent to the chaos around him, silently shooting a Kubrick glare – head down, eyes upward – at him. This is followed by a similar close-up of Kong, who returns the colonel’s defiance with an angry roar. It’s a short sequence, but it conveys the essence of the relationship between two characters – in this case, the mutual hatred and enmity between Packard and Kong – far better than the clunky exposition that makes up the bulk of the film’s dialogue does.
If there was any hope for Vogt-Roberts’ vision of reconciling the monster and Vietnam War subgenres into a viable whole, it lay with Jackson, whose role does the most to make the background relevant. Visibly disturbed after learning that Washington has decided to leave Vietnam to the Vietnamese, Packard is relieved when his division is assigned as the Monarch group’s escorts to Skull Island and zealously takes up his crusade against Kong just as he presumably did the US’s crusade against communism. And just like real-life hawks believed that the war in Southeast Asia could be won long after the rest of the country realized it couldn’t, Packard remains adamant about bringing Kong to heel even after the rest of the expedition urges him not to. This is a subtext we surprisingly don’t see that much in monster movies (the only two examples of it or similar ones I can think are the original Godzilla, with its origins in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Aliens, with arguable Vietnam undertones of its own), but one that is regrettably undermined by the choice to connect the dots for the audience and make the subtext just simple text by having Packard draw explicit parallels between the two when he says he will not “cut and run”, the infamous rallying cry of Vietnam revanchists, after the other members of the team beg him to cease pursuing Kong.
The little boy who loves B-movies in me wishes I could say that the monsters make it all worthwhile, but sadly I cannot. There’s a giant squid, a gargantuan spider, the aforementioned Skullcrawlers, some sort-of pseudo-pterosaur, and giant water buffaloes that don’t do much besides look cute and get killed, and as impressive as this roster of beasties sounds, it suffers just as much from Skull Island‘s chronic inability to capitalize on its characters. The team makes short work of the spider after it kills a meager one of their own, Kong makes a snack out of the squid after it unwisely attempts a sneak attack on him, and the pterosaurs, although numerous, simply aren’t big enough to be threatening in a world where apes as tall as skyscrapers roam. Even the main baddies of the film, the Skullcrawlers, are unable to inspire lasting fear or fascination, with the only one big enough to pose any real threat to the title character emerging from hibernation only in the last thirty minutes before being just as quickly defeated by him. Even with the advantage of a decade’s worth of advances in special effects, none of the creatures stand out the way the ones from Peter Jackson‘s King Kong, for all the criticism thrown at it, did. There is no equivalent of that movie’s abyss scene, no scene comparable to the nightmarish sight of men being slowly swallowed alive by prehistoric eldritch abominations or suddenly snatched up by crevice-dwelling predators before disappearing forever, and there isn’t a single fight or interaction between Kong and the Skullcrawlers that is half as convincing or compelling as those between Jackson’s Kong and the Vastastosaurus Rex.
Having said all this, I will be the first to tell you that Kong: Skull Island is not a terrible movie. If you go in with little to no expectations, chances are you’ll enjoy it much more than I did. But by attempting what it does and coming in the aftermath of Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla, it opens itself up to the harshest criticism. While Godzilla had an excellent sense of momentum and left it to the audience to find any possible political undertones, Kong has no momentum to speak of and spoon-feeds its commentary to viewers whether they want it or not. Not sure what it wants to do most of the time and half-hearted when it does, it’s more like Vietnam than it set out to be.
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