“A sense of context and space is so secondary that it seems like an afterthought that the movie features the biggest King Kong yet.”
by Ken Bakely
There is a virility and speed to Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island that few other blockbusters can claim. There are big, fast-moving setpieces, dressed with grand swathes of bright color, clear sound, and creative action. It is then when the film becomes pure entertainment, operating jubilantly in those moments. But it can’t stick the landing. The pacing is off and the structure is confounding. It’s like being taught a song with just the lyrics – the words might be polished and click within themselves, but the melody and the rhythm are missing.
A sense of context and space is so secondary that it seems like an afterthought that the movie features the biggest King Kong yet. Sure, you’ve seen a thirty foot Kong scale the Empire State Building when Fay Wray screamed her way into cinematic history. And in 2005, Peter Jackson showed off what the creature could look like with twenty-first century technology. Yet Vogt-Roberts is here to tell us that this is small stuff: the ape has to be hundreds of feet tall, he has to scale over every other object in the frame. While the film takes place on the titular island, you know that this Kong wouldn’t climb up a tower, he would be the tower.
Such creativity is only available in the abstract. Otherwise, we’re treated to the same old set of big-budget character types who get lost in the mess. Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island follows an expedition to an uncharted, South Asian locale, obscured by a permanent hurricane. A cabal of American soldiers, led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), escort government official Bill Randa (John Goodman), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and British explorer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). They’re not sure what to expect, but it’s certainly not what greets them: Kong himself, swatting their helicopters out of the sky from the moment of their arrival. Only a select few survive the attack.
And among the remainder, what will they do now? They have to make it to the other side of the island to catch their transportation home, and only a few days to do it. Kong isn’t the only creature on Skull, either: everything dangerous is here, except bigger than anywhere else in the world. They split into two groups: the soldiers and the explorers, and each will discover different things, and soon enough, will pursue different goals.
That there is an internal conflict is not surprising – a unified, monolithic group fighting their way through the island would be a boring movie. The potential is lucrative, but Kong: Skull Island does not deal in the lucrative. It deals in the ostensible. Fact: there’s even more on the island than meets the eye, and this is continually true. Fact: Jackson’s commanding officer character must be a vengeful hawk. Fact: Larson’s photographer character must be pacifistic. Fact: Hiddleston’s jaded captain character must be square-jawed and stiff-lipped. Plot points and personal details are stamped about, clamoring over each other for momentary dominance. They are tropes placed into a world which is more developed than they’ll ever be.
Why is this disappointing? Don’t these kinds of movies tend to have underwritten personal details? Yes, but not as an automatic, and this one is proof. Consider one of the film’s great triumphs: an American pilot (John C. Reilly) who has been on the island since crash-landing there in World War II, and in the 28 years since, has gotten to know a small native population which manages to co-exist with all the terrifying creatures. He’s caustic, resourceful, smart, and perceptive. Reilly can play him well, and we come away thinking him the most interesting feature of the movie.
In contrast to all the plain, unfettered point-packing surrounding him, he is memorable. Kong: Skull Island hits its stride once in awhile: a good performance, a splendid action scene, a breathtaking special effects vista. But everything else feels like it came off an assembly line. Many supporting characters are killed off left and right. We do not care. And without having to watch the post-credits scene, it is not the least bit surprising to learn that sequels are in the works. Many franchise films have found a pleasant intersection at which art and commerce can meet. But this movie segregates them, foreground and background. We see the strings.