In an ideal world, a movie is satisfying on all levels – even big spectacle films like “Kong: Skull Island” ought to work across the board. We do not, however, live in an ideal world and therefore it is not terribly surprising that many films fail to be all-around excellent.
The new King Kong movie, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is clearly the product of the real world, not an imagined perfect one. It is certainly an epic film, and the visuals are impressive, but it doesn’t succeed with its story and characters.
The failure here is largely the result of “Skull Island” spending so much time on what it does right – great action sequences with Kong himself and/or a series of incredible MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms). Whether it is a giant spider-like creature or “skull crushers” or the king himself, the entities created for this movie are terrifyingly life-like. One or two moments do ring false, like a particularly silly shot with two of our heroes—James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson)—looking the big guy in the eye, but most of the time it is jaw-droppingly excellent.
It is, in short, intense and it is made more intense as Vogt-Roberts has no problem regularly disposing of cast members. This works for him because nearly each and every cast member is disposable.
The main team is led by Samuel L. Jackson’s military man, Preston Packard. The majority of the film takes place in 1973, with the U.S. just having announced its withdrawal from Vietnam, and Packard feeling lost. He jumps at the chance to take this mission to Skull Island where he finds himself working for Bill Randa (John Goodman), who believes monsters exist there (pssst: he’s right).
The script from Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly never gets far past introducing quirks for the various soldiers under Packard’s command and then simply identifying them by said quirks for the entirety of the movie. This does make it easy to work out which soldier Kong (or another monster) has killed, but it doesn’t ever turn them into real human beings.
Even the main trio played by Larson, Jackson, and Hiddleston are never turned into three dimensional people. Packard repeatedly has his goal defined, protect his soldiers and defeat all enemies, but it never goes further. Weaver, however, is a huge part of the movie but only defined in the broadest of terms. That said, it still may be Hiddleston whose character is the least well drawn of the three. In one eye-rolling moment Conrad starts spouting pop psychology as he asks if any man ever really returns from war.
Goodman at least appears as though he is having fun with the silliness, as does John C. Reilly, who plays a lieutenant whose plane crashing on Skull Island during World War II. Corey Hawkins appears as one of Randa’s employees, Houston Brooks, but his sole job is to not really explain how some of these creatures can live underground. Words are uttered about it but their significance in this film is minimal at best.
As should be clear, this is not a movie that cares about characters. However, nor is it a movie that cares about plot nor logic nor originality. It is a movie where ill-defined actions take place for ill-defined reasons shrouded in ill-defined mysteries. The goal is to get a group of people onto Skull Island and ensure they have no way off for a very well defined period of time so that mayhem can ensue. Once things go badly, the people on the island have an objective, get to the evac. location on time or be stranded forever, but it feels an objective cribbed from any number of other movies. The audience is left to take the bits of plot and expand them on their own into something more fully formed and use other films in that process (“hey, didn’t that seem like that moment in ‘Aliens.'”)
Fortunately, the movie rarely stops to pretend to explore anything serious and when it does, the point is just to move the tale along so that we can get to the next action scene. And, whatever action scene is next is almost certainly worth putting up with the quirky-but-nothing-more characters and the didn’t-they-do-that-in-x-movie plot.
“Kong: Skull Island” feels like a movie perfectly encapsulated by blurbs. It is truly a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, epic adventure with nearly non-stop thrills. If you like big movies it is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen as it is astounding on an action level. Just don’t stop and think about any of it or what it might mean because it is also equally well encapsulated by Shakespeare – it is a movie full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
photo credit: Warner Bros.