By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
It’s 1973, and the United States has pulled out of the Vietnam War and needs a reason to not look like a loser. Thankfully, Bill Randa (John Goodman) is ready with an expedition to an uncharted island, with the not-at-all-foreboding name of Skull Island. Since they’re just scientists and they’re going to an island named after a decomposing body part, they need to hire some help. Enter Swiss Army Badass James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who is never more than ten minutes away from doing something ridiculously handsome and cool. They also bring along Photographer Lady Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who… takes pictures. She doesn’t do much else.
Finally, they’re escorted by a squad of battle-weary soldiers led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, who’s more Samuel L. Jackson-y than he’s been in years) and comprised of a whole bunch of “oh, that guy” actors. They get to the island, and quickly run into Kong himself, who does what any giant monster would do to people who intrude on his island would do: he immediately kills everyone who doesn’t have top billing on the movie’s IMDB page. The remaining team is split up, and Packard declares war on Kong and vows to kill him. Conrad and Weaver run into Hank Marlowe (John C. Reilly), a US pilot marooned on the island in the 40s who has since learned that Kong is something of a protector of the island and the tribe that lives there, and daily throws down with the other, more feral creatures that want to unbalance the food chain.
There’s probably one reason anyone in the theaters this weekend is seeing this movie, and that’s to watch a giant ape kill stuff. In that respect, Skull Island delivers completely. Kong’s epic throwdowns with his human visitors and the other predators of the Skull Island ecosystem are consistently entertaining and surprisingly visceral. Several character deaths occur very abruptly, which gives a good sense of unpredictability on who of the remaining crew is safe.
Kong himself, on top of being a stunning CGI creation, receives a surprising amount of development with not a lot of heavy exposition. Marlow provides some light background for the ape, which makes Kong a much more interesting character than just a feral, sex-starved beast like previous interpretations have pursued. It’s also commendable that the natives in this movie are peaceful inhabitants of the island, instead of bloodthirsty, brain-dead savages that the Kong story usually pushes.
Skull Island suffers from similar problems to the Gareth Edwards Godzilla: the human characters. Human characters seem to be difficult elements to slot into films focused on non-human characters in general: Godzilla felt, at best, indifferent to most of its incredibly forgettable human characters, and while Skulls Island is an improvement in some ways, it continues the trend of unbalanced human and non-human characters.
Several of them feel real, and have a humanity afforded by the direction of Vogt-Roberts, but we don’t get enough of them to truly feel for them, and the growing respect/affection between Conrad and Weaver doesn’t feel earned at all. Conrad’s relentless stoicism and Weaver’s proto-hipster demeanor don’t jive from the beginning, and never intersect in a way that the movie attempts to push them together. There’s one scene where the pair exchange expository backstories, but it, like the two of them, feel like reluctant intermissions between the Kong action sequences. The rest of the characters each have some specific trait or underdeveloped backstory, but they often feel like afterthoughts, or at worst, reluctant additions. The deaths of some of these characters are often fun in an adventure movie sort of way, but they come without any emotional weight since no attachment was ever made to them.
Pacing-wise, things are fine until the second act, where the generally clean transition between action setpieces and character dialogue gave way to a series of scenes that definitely felt like something had been cut. Most noticeably, Marlow’s expository bits about his friendly Japanese companion don’t explain enough and don’t really lead anywhere, leaving a conspicuous feeling that pieces of that backstory got trimmed from an earlier cut. There’s a sense that Vogt-Roberts wanted to direct his some of his actors as fully-fleshed characters, but the suddenly uneven tempo of the middle stretch of the movie and the script’s disinterest in those characters actively works against that goodwill.
At the end of the day, Kong: Skull Island is a lot of fun. It’s loud, flashy, and often quite silly. It’s almost pure id, aggressively directed and bursting at the seams with style. It’s easy to poke holes in some of the logic, but everything is in service to rowdy, intense monster action. It would be very interesting to know if Vogt-Roberts has a longer cut floating around that gives a bit more attention to the characters and the second act, since their shortchanged treatment often grinds the movie to a halt with noticeable gaps in character development. Luckily, the movie mostly thrives on its great action and visuals, and those make the movie worth a watch.
Kong: Skull Island (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time John C. Reilly says something crazy.
Do a Shot: for every primary character death.
Take a Drink: for every new creature introduced.
Take a Drink: every time Kong kills someone/something.
Take a Drink: for every Apocalypse Now/Platoon reference.