Hard-nosed U.S. Army Colonel Preston Packet (Samuel L. Jackson) describes fighting the legendary ape Kong as “dealing with a monster from a bygone era.” King Kong certainly has a colorful, illustrious past onscreen, but Kong: Skull Island adds nothing new or exciting to its history. Dull, clichéd, and overly cheesy, the film strives to establish a new era for Kong, but unfortunately fails.
The film, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) and written by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (2014’s Godzilla), and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), follows a band of mismatched ‘heroes’ and their journey to the uncharted Skull Island to find what secrets it holds. After receiving funding for the expedition during the final days of the Vietnam War, government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) and scientist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) create a team to tag along. This group includes military escorts led by Packet and his goofy squadron of young men, photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and mapping expert and former British Special Air Service captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston).
It’s obvious that Kong: Skull Island is Vogt-Roberts’ first big blockbuster. The directing is nothing special, and he almost seems hesitant to try something new. While the fight scenes between Kong and his helpless enemies are mostly well done, they are intercut with cheesy slow motion that comes in and out of nowhere. Vogt-Roberts also fails to properly pace the film; At times, it drags on unnecessarily. Vogt-Roberts shows some potential, but is further hurt thanks to the poor writing and his own possible reluctance to go against studio executives to try something new.
While it might not seem it, big blockbusters still need solid writing to create a successful film. And yet, Kong: Skull Island mostly struggles because of its clichéd, boring script. The story is ripped from the pages of previous King Kong screenplays: some good guys want to save Kong, some bad guys want to kill him. Even the interesting introduction of the setting of Skull Island is not enough to make this story stand out.
The tone changes wildly throughout. The audience is expected to laugh at poorly constructed ‘jokes,’ and sometimes is meant to be sad and sympathetic to Kong and our protagonists. There are no new ideas amongst Gilroy, Borenstein, and Connolly; it is obvious that they are hoping nostalgia and audience goodwill will get the job done for them.
Similarly, the film falls prey to preoccupation with sequels. While the film still manages to standalone quite well, the end starts slyly winking at what could be a potential franchise. Fewer obsessions with franchises and future films could have made this current project more fulfilling.
The worst writing offense from Gilroy, Borenstein, and Connolly is exemplified in the characters that populate Kong: Skull Island. Despite an abundance of excellent cast members, none of their characters stand out or become fully formed. The audience is expected to care about the heroes, but without interesting personalities or backstories, what is there to empathize with? Even worse, most characters are obviously just there as bait. Every action film needs disposable side characters that could be killed off at any moment without consequence, and although there’s nothing wrong with that, it was a redundant theme for Kong.
With the film’s script, one can imagine that the actors do not have much to work with, and this is absolutely true. Despite recruiting a variety of talented A-listers, the acting barely rises above mediocre or serviceable. No one is particular poor in the film, but there is no excitement in the actors’ performances. They merely deliver the cliché lines and call it a day, and the film falls flat because of it. Larson is fresh off an Academy Award win and gets absolutely nothing to do in Kong: Skull Island. The film wants Mason to seem like a tough, trailblazing feminist character, and Larson tries to establish that, but it just doesn’t connect when she has nothing to do.
The worst is the terribly miscast Tom Hiddleston, who might be classically handsome and look great in a tight t-shirt, but he’s no roguish action star. All of the charm audiences might associate with him through Thor’s Loki is gone, and he is completely unconvincing as an Indiana Jones type of hero. Additionally, usually reliable players Jackson and Goodman sleepwalk through their roles. There’s no spark to these characters or the performances behind them.
The only saving grace in the performances is, John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a former U.S. soldier who was abandoned on Skull Island for decades. This is because Marlow is the most fleshed out character in the whole film. He gets his own heartbreaking backstory, and has real motivations. It’s a bittersweet reminder that the film could have accomplished something great with some more creativity in their characters.
Despite a majority of jokes in the film falling flat, Reilly manages to cultivate some real laughs thanks to his performance. He gives Marlow a perfect blend of goofy and serious, and every scene with him is a treat.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t completely irredeemable, which makes its flaws even more upsetting. One of the most important aspects of the film, Kong himself, is very well done. The Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) monster, and the other strange sea monsters he fights on the island, are larger than life. The action scenes are exciting and effective when Kong is involved.
Of course, things are not all perfect. The actual Skull Island setting is not memorable at all. The island could have easily been a faceless jungle for most of the film, despite the endless potential the setting allowed for.
The last element worth mentioning is the music, done by Henry Jackman, which is omnipresent throughout the film. On one hand, the music consists of quality choices that fit the period, including songs from The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and various war related songs from prominent artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, it seems that the impressive music choices are supposed to make up for the lack of excitement throughout the film. The director and Jackman hope that scene changes with ‘cool’ music cues will give the film some life, but this only succeeds the first few times, not through the entire runtime.
In the end, Kong: Skull Island is not the first great blockbuster of the year. It’s a mindless, unimaginative take on a classic character that had every chance to create something new, and deliberately did not. Hopefully, the inevitable next reboot of Kong will be much more worthy of a king.
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