Kong: Skull Island tries, and I can’t fault it for that. It wants to be a monster film with heart, a war film with natural carnage, a science film with action. It ends up being an awkward mixture of all three, a tonally inconsistent mess that feels severely rushed even at two hours of runtime.
Unlike Peter Jackson’s 2005 attempt to reboot Kong, which couldn’t have played the adaptation straighter with a Xerox machine, Kong: Skull Island advances its story to 1973, in the wake of the American retreat from Vietnam. The eponymous island is now the focus of a scientific expedition, a search for megafauna by a scientist team flanked by U.S. Marines. There’s space for dozens of unique story opportunities here: but what we get is a weird mixture of the 2005 reboot, Apocalypse Now and Jurassic Park III.
The cast is directly composed of references to the three, and the mixture doesn’t entirely work. A swarthy male and sensitive female lead appealing to Kong’s emotions, soldiers ripped wholesale from Coppola’s Vietnam, a barrage of businessmen and corrupt scientists who exist to be killed in satisfying ways. When it wants to be Apocalypse Now, the soldiers are heroic badasses; the very next scene they’re awful murderers. It’s hard to figure out who to root for and who to despise when the characters flip-flop between roles so quickly.
"What we get is a weird mixture of the 2005 reboot, Apocalypse Now and Jurassic Park III"
You could say that this is the film showing off the moral ambiguity of man compared to nature: but any actual debate is choked by one of the decade’s most laughable scripts. Open-side helicopters fly through thunderstorms yet leave their occupants completely dry, their hair in perfect order. John C. Reilly’s airman speaks perfect English after living for twenty-eight years in a village of mutes. A giant monster regurgitates the skull of a missing soldier, complete with sparkling clean dog tags, directly into the lap of the people searching for him.
It’s stupid convenience at its finest, and impossible to take seriously: even Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston’s performances are dubious once the real action gets going.
If you’re capable of looking past that, however, it’s possible to have a lot of fun with Kong: Skull Island. It’s visually stunning and well-choreographed from beginning to end, effortlessly darting between lavish military bases and a gorgeous Skull Island. The creatures are generally well designed too, even if the main monsters, the serpentine Skull Crawlers, look more adorable than intimidating. The fight scenes are brilliant: special mention goes to a frantic fight against a giant daddy-long-legs in a bamboo grove.
The best part of the visual design is easily Kong himself. His raw size produces fabulously dramatic partial shots and screen-filling close-ups: he has never looked as terrifying as he does in silhouette, blocking out the sunset.
Kong: Skull Island can’t escape the beast it is. No amount of pretension in the excuse plot will divorce it from what the 1933 original was: an absolute visual treat first and foremost. Come to it for the violence, because it pulls it off with aplomb, a good omen for the oncoming MonsterVerse franchise. This is a Kong I want to see fight again.
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