‘Kong: Skull Island’ Review: Apocalypse Not
I personally think that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is hands down one of the best blockbusters of the 21st century. The reason being that it consistently did the opposite of what we expect from a mega movie: it killed characters off screen (and naturally!), it hid the monsters for a long time—and instead favored the tension of human reactions, steam or cracks in the earth—until it revealed that we were seeing different monsters that the titular monster needed to save mankind from. Edwards teased for so long that by the time Ken Wantanabe said, “let them fight!” it reduced the audience to a child with monster-fight glee overcoming them. In between, silence was used expertly, for there is nothing scarier in a monster movie than stillness. It was the rare blockbuster that felt like a director made a film based on his own decisions as opposed to the corporate overlords calling all the shots.
I mention Edwards’ film because while many fans were happy with his approach, an equal amount were dissatisfied with Godzilla for the very reasons I listed above: it hid the main monster too long, it dispatched characters differently, and the giant nuclear lizard got less screen time than her mutant insect challengers. And with Legendary Pictures’ next monster offering, Kong: Skull Island, they appear to have workshopped the film based on Godzilla focus groups. The titular monster appears throughout, it doesn’t miss a death scene and it still builds to a “let them fight” monster showdown. If you are a monster movie fan that disliked or felt lukewarm to Godzilla then Kong: Skull Island is the attempt to win you back before both monsters eventually square off. That might be the best approach for an inclusive franchise, but having more monster time actually makes Kong far blander and duller than its predecessor. And it’s a shame because there are some beautifully stylized moments that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts creates that should really please everyone.
Skull Island opens in 1944 in the South Pacific with a Japanese plane and American plane crashing on an island in WWII. The two young soldiers go from firefight to hand to hand combat. It’s a wonderful adventure opening that looks and feels like The Little Prince or The Adventures of Tintin until Kong pops his giant ape head up to check the commotion and we fade to black. Then the title credits of stock footage of WWII and scientific tests rolls (it’s very similar to the opening credits of Godzilla, which is a nice touch to lay the connective tissue of their world of monsters) and we’re shuttled to 1973.
In ’73, John Goodman and Corey Hawkins force their way into a senator’s office to ask for funding to map out an uncharted island in the South Pacific. They’re initially rebuffed, but as the Vietnam War is wrapping up with an American retreat, their appeal to the ensuing Cold War fears of any Communist country getting to map and study this island instead of Americans gets them funded. They’re going to need soldiers to escort them, though. Enter Samuel L. Jackson’s Vietnam battalion who only have a few days left on their tour (Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigam, Thomas Mann, Toby Kebbell and glorified extras who’ll die in helicopter crashes) and a war photographer who’s been “in the shit” (Brie Larson). The final person they need, done under the table and paid in cash, is a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) because Goodman and Hawkins’ believe that the island is actually a portal for monsters from the underworld and of course that wasn’t a part of their beat-the-Commies pitch.
You’ll no doubt notice that I didn’t bother with character names for any of the above actors. Despite boasting a great cast, none of those individuals gets to create a character. They show up as their famous persona and don’t get much more to do than that. In fact, even though they crash on this island after being swatted out of the sky by Kong himself—their helicopters like flies to this immense beast—their movie star personas never succumb to the harsh jungle conditions; their hair remains perfectly styled, their beauty impeccably maintained—never forget that these are celebrities on Kong’s island. Larson in particular is woefully underused (and suspiciously only really interacts with Hiddleston—because movie-star stuff—and though she’s anti-war she never engages with the scientists, even the only other female who’s on their mission, Tian Jing, instead she immediately attaches herself to the soldiers). Her character is mostly directed to have a strong hero stance whenever the men point their guns. The only actor who is given enough backstory and personality to deserve their own character name is John C. Reilly and his Hank Marlow, who we’ll get to soon enough. Marlow is not only a voice of reason but he’s the only real beating heart of Skull Island.
But if we’re going off of Godzilla focus groups, what you really want to know about is the monster himself. How does Kong look? To be honest, he’s too big. Inevitably, Kong’s size is to eventually take on Godzilla, but for this movie it far too often makes him look cartoonish whenever mixed in with practical elements or human actors. There’s a spatial distance that makes Kong appear to be in a separate field of existence rather than being a threatening presence, even when he’s literally face to face with soldiers and flames. The Planet of the Apes franchise has perfected motion capture technology because the apes are the same size as humans and thus occupying our space looks more natural. But due to Kong’s size, he never looks real and always looks like he’s occupying an entirely different space. (It’s worth noting that both Kebbell and Terry Notary, who worked together on Apes, play Kong here.)
Skull Island does get marks for telling a new story in the Kong mythology. This is the first Kong film (not including the Godzilla monster movies) that is entirely contained to the island and doesn’t involve an ape fixation on the blonde woman. This story is more interested in the ideas of soldiers who’ve just spent years fighting a senseless war, having no real ending to that war and desiring to kill everything in sight simply because it provides an ending of perceived justice—killing what killed their battalion. But no matter how many shots of a hazy orange sun or helicopters and river boats blasting era-specific anti-war tunes you’ll never be convinced that the war metaphor carries as much weight as Apocalypse Now as the film wants you to think it does. (Legendary also includes a few Jurassic Park/Jurassic World winks by having Jackson use the “hold on to your butts” line and having a very similar pterodactyl-like attack to kill the lawyer type.)
However, although Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly work in numerous Now references, it is their Dennis Hopper character, the aforementioned Marlow, that actually registers in Skull Island. Marlow is a crashed plane survivor who’s lived amongst the native people who worship Kong for protecting them against the larger monster threats on the island; aided by some fantastic production design, Marlow is our guide to the island, and though he’s occasionally too comic relief-y (even Captain Ron-like), he gets multiple chances to actually build a character and eventually he does. When he’s attempting to reason with Jackson’s warpath against Kong it’s the most dramatically earned moments of Kong. And Reilly truly delivers. However, since he’s the only character to give a damn about and Kong is there just to fight, the pacing becomes pretty jumbled.
Ultimately, the focus on CGI monster attacks pushes the characters too far into the corners of the story. And Kong’s alone time only features monster battles, so there’s no extra heft afforded to the King. So even though Skull Island features some truly breathtaking moments that incorporate the elements that everyone loved in Godzilla—the tense, still and smoky seconds where an unseen monster lurks (cinematographer Larry Fong deserves a shout-out; as does a particular ingenious use of a malfunctioning camera flash)—it feels like a movie that was made in a focus group chemist lab and never solidifies an identity. Like Kong himself, this film is big and polished but it lacks a distinct personality.