It isn’t easy to make a good creature feature. While one might think it’s satisfying enough just to see giant mythical creatures slugging it out on the silver screen, there’s definitely a hierarchy of quality. For every deliriously satisfying smackdown like “Pacific Rim,” there are two or three CGI-overstuffed crackups like “Wrath of the Titans” or “Gods of Egypt.”
“Kong: Skull Island” belongs to the latter category.
I consider myself quite forgiving when it comes to this particular genre. After all, no one expects Shakespeare out of a King Kong reboot. But even by these reduced standards, “Skull Island” is entirely unsatisfactory: its characters are paper-thin, its plot beats make little sense, and its tone constantly veers between serious and outrageous. About all it has going for it are its special effects (which, it must be said, are phenomenal).
‘Skull Island’ Doesn’t Build Suspense Like Its Predecessors
Set in 1973, “Skull Island” follows entrepreneurial Bill Randa (John Goodman) as he organizes an expedition to the eponymous long-lost island, where ancient mysteries wait to be uncovered. He’s joined by a team of stock characters—grizzled warfighter Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), special-ops tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a band of interchangeable soldiers. (I actually had to check IMDB to learn what these characters’ names were. That’s how underdeveloped they are.)
Upon arriving at Skull Island, the explorers immediately take on King Kong himself in a violent helicopter battle. This is not your dad’s Kong: this Kong is a 100-foot carnivorous behemoth that doesn’t care about “beauty.” Much smashing and bashing ensue. Shortly thereafter, the surviving crew meets up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a World War II veteran who’s managed to survive for decades on Skull Island with the natives’ help. As it turns out, Kong isn’t their real problem: the great ape is the only thing keeping a horde of “skull crawlers” (cave-dwelling reptilian monsters that look like giant pteranodons without wings) at bay. And so on and on it goes.
I hold the unpopular view that 2005’s “King Kong” (helmed by Peter Jackson) is a woefully underappreciated epic. The Kong mythology is not the stuff of high art, but Jackson infused the flimsy source material with character-driven gravitas and a real sense of wonder and beauty. Yes, it was three hours long, but the film succeeded precisely because Kong doesn’t show up for an hour or so: Jackson marinated his story in influences ranging from Joseph Conrad to the 1933 original, and ended up producing something genuinely grand.
There’s Nothing Subtle Or Well-Structured About This Film
“Skull Island” is not grand at all. It is a positively bludgeoning experience that allows no time for proper awe or spectacle. Gareth Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla” reboot took a lot of flak for showing its star monster so infrequently, but “Skull Island” should’ve taken a page from that playbook: Kong makes his presence felt within the first five minutes, draining away any sense of looming menace.
To make matters worse, frenetic editing keeps the viewer from fully appreciating the awesome power of the creatures onscreen. No breathtaking image is allowed to linger onscreen for longer than a second or two before the camera flits away to something else. The monster-fight scenes aren’t any better: from a purely cinematographic standpoint, the smash-and-bash climax feels significantly inferior to Peter Jackson’s “Kong vs. T-rexes” fight scene.
“Skull Island” also suffers from a badly structured plot that lacks a clear sense of causality. The popular video game series “Gears of War” centers on a band of roughnecks who foray through monster-infested wastelands, shooting everything in their path, as bigger and bigger monsters spontaneously emerge from the ground.
That is precisely how “Skull Island” unfolds: giant-creature attacks are entirely arbitrary and defy the film’s own narrative “rules.” Over and over, events happen in this movie that make no sense at all. A skull crawler’s forked tongue suddenly quadruples in length! A super-sized skull crawler emerges from the ground Kong was standing on seconds before! Kong decides that some of the humans who were shooting at him are actually good guys! These aren’t clever creative twists; they’re marks of bad writing.
In perhaps the movie’s most outrageous sequence, a gas-masked Tom Hiddleston charges forward in slow motion, though clouds of billowing green smoke, to chop a pterodactyl in half with a katana as blue gore flies everywhere. I’m all for “willing suspension of disbelief,” but even I have my limits.
There Are Some Redeeming Qualities, However
In terms of acting, Larson and Reilly are the real highlights. Both are clearly bringing their A-game to otherwise underdeveloped roles: Larson channels a winsome blend of naïveté and savviness, while Reilly manages to keep his motivations suitably enigmatic throughout.
They’re the only leads who really resonate. The aristocratic Hiddleston is badly miscast as a rough-and-tumble, Han Solo-type adventurer (and for that matter, his character is entirely inessential to the plot). Samuel L. Jackson, for his part, is decidedly not in top form.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing redeeming about “Skull Island.” The visuals, as previously noted, are amazing. Certain elements of the film’s production design—most notably, the distinctive aesthetic of Skull Island’s native civilization—are genuinely outstanding (I’ve never seen anything like this particular cultural motif, and it’s inventive enough to almost justify watching the film for that alone). There’s also a wonderful post-credits scene that teases a long-awaited crossover event.
‘Skull Island’ Will Get Lots Of Airplay On Cable
But when all’s said and done, “Skull Island” simply has nothing on its mind beyond “coolness.” It’s a shame, because the opportunities to go deeper were there. 2005’s “Kong” managed to hit on some important, profound themes—the universality and objectivity of beauty, the price of avarice, the actor as representation of an aspirational ideal, and so on—within a familiar story framework, and for its part, “Skull Island” briefly flirts with more serious Vietnam War-era topics. Alas, there’s simply no payoff to be found.
This is the kind of movie that will get lots of airplay on basic cable in a year or two, and that’s not necessarily a terrible thing (it’d be fun to watch off-and-on for half an hour or so). Overall, though, this is a bruising, graceless movie that reflects the worst tendencies of 2017 Hollywood. Given the involvement of a Chinese production company, I can only suppose that this is one of those films engineered to appeal to a “global audience” (which, in practice, means lots of explosions, little thematic depth, and a forgettable plot).
Save your money. This “Kong” doesn’t deserve to wear the crown.