Review: “Kong: Skull Island”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Warner Brothers has been trying to reboot its classic monster movie franchises over the past several years, with 2014’s “Godzilla” supposedly kicking off a series of new films.  That film had mixed results, but “Kong: Skull Island,” the second film in this new “Monsterverse,” does even more so.

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, “Kong” is set in 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War.  Bill Randa (John Goodman) acquires government funding for an expedition to a newly discovered uncharted island in the Pacific, called Skull Island (you can immediately see why this movie already works better in 1973 than it would if it was set in the present day).  The next part of the film introduces the rest of the cast as Randa assembles his team.  First he needs a helicopter escort, so he enlists the Sky Devils squadron led by Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is about to head home from the war but wants to keep fighting, and so he readily accepts the mysterious job.  Then there’s James Conrad, a former British Captain who Randa picks up in a bar for a hefty price to be the team’s tracker.  Also on board is photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who believes the mission is some sort of military cover-up, along with numerous soldiers, biologists, and geologists.

Conrad and company come across a giant bison. Or something.

As soon as they reach the island, the helicopters drop a series of explosives designed by seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) to determine whether or not the ground is hollow.  This angers Kong, the 100 foot tall ape who rules over the island.  He attacks the helicopters, bringing them all down and killing many of the team members (except, of course, our aforementioned main characters and several expendable characters).  They’re all split up, but there’s a resupply team headed for the north island in three days that could get them off the island if they make it in time.  So the bulk of the movie is their journey across the island, which as it quickly becomes apparent is inhabited by a ton of other huge creatures besides Kong: giant spiders, giant ants, pterodactyls, and, most menacing of all, the Skullcrawlers, who live underground but were drawn to the surface by the explosives.  Conrad and Weaver eventually realize that Kong isn’t bad and doesn’t want to hurt them, he just felt threatened, but Packard has his sights set on nothing but vengeance against Kong.

The whole film has a sort of “Apocalypse Now” feel to it, in terms of the soundtrack and visual style (the majority of the film has a very red/orange tone that’s quite nice and accentuates the feeling of danger).  Many of the previous films featuring King Kong at least partially take place in an urban setting, so it’s interesting to see Kong only in his natural habitat.  There are some generous helpings of B-movie fun in “Kong,” particularly involving Kong fighting off some of the island’s other, more dangerous creatures, with an epic battle between Kong and the biggest Skullcrawler serving as the film’s climax.  The monsters may not be the most imaginative, but the design is well-done, and Kong is given a lot of expression through a motion-capture performance by Toby Kebbell (who also plays Chapman, one of the members of the Sky Devils).  The action pauses at just the right intervals to allow for a quiet, and even moving, moment involving the misunderstood monster.  But there are some pretty over-the-top moments with the humans fighting the monsters as well, like Hiddleston’s Conrad charging through poison gas, slashing at a swarm of pterodactyls with a samurai sword.

“Kong” probably would have been fine as just a straight-up, ridiculous B-movie, or as a more serious, epic monster movie.  The problem is, it tries to be both, and it sets up a bunch of different storylines that it never sees through.  The cast is strong, but the material they’re given to work with isn’t.  A lot of the dialogue doesn’t feel natural, and a lot of the character’s motivations are confusing.  The only clear thing is the rivaling views the characters have regarding Kong, and by extension, nature.  Conrad is established at the beginning of the film as being sort of roguish and uncaring, but toward the end of the movie he is suddenly all for helping Kong, putting both his life and his chance at getting off the island at risk.  The change occurs for no apparent reason.  Weaver wants to accompany the expedition because she believes there’s some sort of cover-up happening (which is kind of true—the mission isn’t taking place for scientific purposes, but rather so Randa can prove to the world that monsters exist and he isn’t a crackpot), but we don’t see where she goes with that at the end of the movie.  What was the point of even setting up that plot point if it wasn’t going anywhere?  It’s alluded to that she’s against the war as well, but that never goes anywhere either, unless you could say that it contributes to her being the first character to really establish a connection with Kong, instead of wanting to shoot him on sight.  The one character who does get closure is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a former American solider the team comes across who has been living with the tribal people on the island since he was stranded there during World War II.  Reilly is good, and his character, half-senile from living on the island for so long, provides a lot of the film’s comic relief.  It’s obvious that the filmmakers knew he would get the most response out of the audience, but it’s still strange to see this supporting character who doesn’t even appear until almost halfway through the movie suddenly almost become the main character.

“Kong: Skull Island” is the first film featuring the iconic King Kong since Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the 1933 movie, which is one of the all-time classics in and of itself.  This film is clearly trying to elevate itself to something above a mere “monster movie,” but fails spectacularly in the process.  Like Godzilla, it should have focused less on the humans, and more on the monsters.  Or at least make the humans more interesting.  Or at least bother to finish telling their stories at the end of the movie.

Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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