“Is that a monkey?”
As several Vietnam-era helicopters fly over the eponymous island, a 100-foot tall silhouette appears against the backdrop of a setting sun. One of the characters in the helicopters utters the insightful question written above. The towering behemoth in front of the choppers is none other than King Kong, no longer a diminutive 25-30 foot ape, but instead a giant whose size calls into question just how he can go unnoticed on the island. After spotting the building-sized animal, the humans decide to attack the creature. The sensible thing to do would be to fly away as quickly as humanly possible, but this is a movie that contains a scene in which Kong uses a fallen tree as a club to fight a giant lizard. Clearly we are not dealing in strict realism. Kong responds to the helicopter attack by destroying as many as he can, as 100-foot tall apes are wont to do. The characters seem shocked when their helicopters crash and they are suddenly trapped on the island with no clear escape.
This scene sets the stage for the enjoyable, if seriously flawed Kong: Skull Island, which seems to exist solely to set up a Godzilla vs. Kong film in 2020. The film’s story, if it can be called that, involves an expedition to the undiscovered Skull Island, where, upon arrival, the characters find themselves marooned on a hellish island rife with various monstrous beasts determined to enjoy them for dinner. The premise alone makes for a fun ride, but the film gets derailed by one-dimensional characters and a breathless pace that never gives the audience a chance to breathe.
The cast, complete with Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, and John C. Reilly, should have made for some memorable humans in a film so focused on monsters. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Every character gets a half-hearted characterization at the beginning of the film: Hiddleston’s tracker is a badass, Larson’s journalist likes taking photographs, John Goodman just plays himself, Jackson plays an unhinged military man whose motivations are barely explained, and so on. The film spends the non-Skull Island portion trying to introduce all of these characters as quickly as possible, but there are so many that they all end up feeling like cannon fodder. Reilly makes an entrance in the middle of the film to provide some much needed levity, but his hammy performance contrasts awkwardly with the earnestness of Hiddleston and Larson. With the human characters so lacking, and in limited screentime, Kong feels like the most developed character.
And Kong certainly is king in this film. Anytime he is on the screen, the proceedings are immediately elevated, both figuratively and literally. He towers over the human characters, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wastes no time in revealing him in all his glory to the audience. Any action scene involving Kong or the other creatures on Skull Island is exciting and inventive, thanks to Vogt-Roberts’ creative camera angles and fast-paced editing. Despite the frenetic pacing, the fights never become incomprehensible, and this makes the film entertaining, if nothing else.
The design of the creatures, ranging from ants with huge stalks for legs to strange lizards with rows of knife-like teeth, is also pleasantly surprising. But the issue with these creatures is that, with a few lone exceptions, they are only used in scenes to put the human characters in some sort of peril. The audience rarely gets a moment to relax and gaze in wonder at the exotic creations on screen. Vogt-Roberts seems so intent on keeping the film moving at a breakneck pace to the next montage with a ‘70s song playing in the background that he forgets to take a moment and bask in the wonder of Skull Island. This is the heart of Kong movies past: not the violence and danger on the island, but the mystery and wonder at what sort of life it has preserved. Some brief moments of peace with Kong are much appreciated, but the film wastes no time in immediately jumping back into whatever set-piece it has planned next. The result is a rushed assortment of action scenes and pointless vignettes that see extraneous characters quickly killed off with no effect on the main story.
With a runtime of just under two hours, Kong: Skull Island is a relatively quick experience, and is worth seeing just for the giant creature action. But any fan looking for a similar experience to past Kong films will be disappointed. The characters are paper-thin and the dialogue is laughable, but the showdown between Kong and a monstrous lizard quickly sweep any concerns about internal consistency or character motivations aside. The film contains plenty of B-movie level dialogue and over-the-top moments, and this makes it no more than a very entertaining but equally brainless monster movie. With a showdown with Godzilla on the horizon, Kong will have his work cut out for him. Next time, don’t bother with those pesky humans. Kong: Skull Island proves that Kong is capable of providing an entertaining film on his own. Long live the king.
Image Credits: Photo source: IMDb