Cinematic universes are all the rage right now, but when it was announced that we’d be seeing a movie universe inhabited by both the legendary Japanese monster Godzilla and the American equivalent King Kong, it was hard not to get excited (even if it has already happened in 1962). 2014’s Godzilla marked the first step towards this monstrous clash, and the new film from Jordan Voigt-Roberts marks the next step as we’re introduced to the mammalian side of the equation. Featuring a stellar cast and a big vision, can Kong: Skull island meet both the character’s legacy and future ambitions for a franchise?
In a nice change of pace, Kong: Skull island isn’t the story of a giant ape that falls in love with a human female and gets taken to New York, instead choosing to keep the action firmly on the island. An exploration group headed up by John Goodman makes its way to a previously undiscovered island, though only Goodman seems to know for sure what they might encounter there. Things go wrong when Kong takes a dislike to his new visitors, and the mismash of military and civilians have to survive the dangers of the island and make it back to the pickup point.
Unlike Peter Jackson’s three hour plus epic, Kong: Skull Island is a far more streamlined watch, clocking in just shy of two hours. Without having to hit the beats of the traditional story, there is a lot more freedom to tell a fresh story involving King Kong and Skull Island, but ultimately the movie trades in one well known story for another. In place of the traditional King Kong tale we get a simple survival action film, dropping a bunch of people into a weird land and having to deal with the unexpected, though for the viewer nothing is really all that unexpected.
All the human characters in Kong are incredibly one note and cliché. The initial introductions of the main cast are quite effective at giving us a snippet into who they are, but they never really develop beyond that. Even the main characters who you’d expect to gain some depth and interest as the movie goes on barely get any more to work with outside of an offhand line here or there. You basically know all there is to know about the ensemble within five minutes. Which is almost forgivable for a two hour movie that’s fairly heavy on the action (and a giant ape) but as a result you get a forgettable bunch of characters despite the quality of actors littered through the film. Even with the shallow characterisation across the board, we still get a few characters who fall through the cracks and are literally ‘just there’, with Tian Jing’s character the worst offender of the bunch.
John C Reilly’s character gets the most development, and while a lot of his comedy kind of falls flat he’s still by far the most interesting of the bunch. You actually care about what becomes of him, and there’s history to his character that carries weight. The same can be said for Samuel L Jackson’s role as Packard, who threatens to be more interesting than he ends up being but gets some needed complexity to his character. Everyone else seems to be acting off of one characteristic, and the only reason to feel attachment is because it’s Tom Hiddleston or Brie Larson, rather than because of anything earned by the film.
But then again people aren’t paying for the humans in this picture. Kong is as menacing as ever, and because they’re heading towards an eventual throwdown with the 2014 Godzilla, he gets quite the size upgrade here. He’s gigantic, towering over the world and dominating the frame whenever he’s around. They make the most of this in the fights too, succeeding where Pacific Rim also did in making the size feel real. As Kong wrestles the world around him bends and shakes to his will, and there’s quite a bit of action littered through the film to enjoy, rather than everything being saved for the finale like in Godzilla. There are also some small callbacks to the original King Kong story, which is a nice touch.
Kong looks fantastic. It’s not quite Ceaser levels from the new Planet of the Apes movies, but they do a good job of conveying his emotions. Everything from the hair to the scars are well realised and the result is a great looking beast. The other creatures that call Skull Island home also do the job. Some of them feel like they’re just there for the sake of it, but they’re well crafted and distinctive. They’re rarely hidden in darkness too, whether fighting or otherwise, so you can appreciate the CGI work on display.
It seems like the director at times tries to hide the straightforward premise and boring characters with some artsy direction, but the end result is very hit and miss, bordering on distracting. There’s also some frustrating use of slow motion that stops the action from being consistently good, along with some small but apparent logical inconsistencies in the middle of a battle. I’d be more accepting of it in a basic action movie, but they often contradicted events that were used to build tension just a minute prior. There are also elements of tonal dissonance. The very first scene seems confused as to how comedic it is trying to present itself as, and there are times when the drama and attempted comedy don’t line up well.
At the end of the day you know exactly what you’re getting from this movie. It’s a fairly generic blockbuster action movie that leans on a selling point (in this case, Kong and the monsters) and does just enough everywhere else to make the experience serviceable. The characters are utterly forgettable and the plot never threatens to deviate far from what you’d expect. It’s a fun watch but it’s unlikely you will be clamouring to see it again unless you really enjoy the monster sized action – which is a perfectly valid reason for a rewatch, it’s just I’d argue Pacific Rim had already nailed that feel years ago. There’s enjoyment to be had, but overall Kong: Skull island is pretty disappointing.