3/10 GOOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING, SKULL ISLAND!
In 1973, just a day after saying goodnight to Saigon, top-ranking government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) gets the green light for an expedition to Skull Island, an uncharted land mass surrounded by a perpetual storm system revealed by the government’s new satellites. Randa rounds up Air Force lieutenant colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackman) and his team to fly to the island, ex-British special forces captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to navigate once there and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who brings her camera to shoot the landscape. The crew begins by bombing the island to see if it has any caves, which draws the ire of
comrade King Kong, the massive ape that rules the island, who swats their choppers down like flies. From there, the team is split between Packard, who wants to dig in deep and shoot on sight, and Conrad, who wants to not leave in plastic as a numbered corpse. With a refueling rendezvous scheduled in three days, the group’s only hope is to fight their way to the north end of the country island.
Kong: Skull Island brings a cast for the ages to bear against some decent giant monster action. It’s obviously got a few things on its mind about the Vietnam War, and turning a monster movie of this scale into a thinkpiece about a war that ended 45 years ago is audacious on its own. But as intriguing as this movie is conceptually, it’s just as technically and emotionally inept.
Kong: Skull Island is comprised mostly of sequences designed to show off its set pieces, cutting from a dramatic wide shot to a bevy of detail shots, but those details are often either too close up to tell what they are, too obscure to understand why they’re being shown or flash too quick to make sense of it regardless.
Despite an orientation toward detail shots, there’s not a lot of attention to detail in the way the shots are set up, and it comes out in some pretty awful mistakes. At one point, Packard is shown the collected dogtags of seven of his men, an emotional moment that will dictate his actions over the entire rest of the movie, but the shot cuts him off above the nose, so he doesn’t even get to show you his war face.
Another way this comes out is, for all the fantastic giant monsters in this movie, none of them get fantastic introductions. One of the more basic things you’d expect in a movie like this would be sweeping, dramatic reveal shots of its creatures, but they just sort of appear onscreen without buildup or fanfare. In-universe, the team doesn’t notice them either until they’re right on top of the action.
Think about that. An Air Force squadron is approaching a 100-foot tall gorilla, and they don’t see him until he’s already dispatched two helicopters.
Also recalling Suicide Squad are the characters — from how quickly they’re introduced to how little time you get to spend with them to how little you care about them. They’re all established in this rapid sequence of scenes at the start of the movie, only getting a few lines each to introduce themselves, and then they’re set against the giant monsters.
Aside from Packard, who wants to terminate Kong with extreme prejudice, and Randa, who wants to prove monsters exist, nobody has any kind of character arc or even motivation beyond just surviving. Conrad is a total mercenary. Weaver is a pacifist, and they try to invoke that tension between her and Packard, but the war is over and they only get one short scene together. They try to imply a romance with her and Conrad because they both look like walking Vogue covers, but any joy or romantic chemistry is blocked by the awkward camerawork and the weird sternness with which they both play their characters.
Movies are supposed to make you care about them by presenting you with characters that you care about, then thrusting them into a tense situation. When you don’t care about the characters because you don’t spend any time with them and even they don’t really care about what’s going on, it’s hard to maintain interest no matter how big the gorilla is.
The movie’s only well-done artistic aspect lies in how well it expresses its political stance. That stance is an unironic endorsement of communism, but at least it’s clear. Most people don’t go to giant monster movies for heavy-handed preaching about how Vietnam was bad, and after Watergate and punk rock, do we really need anybody to make that argument? With or without giant calamari dishes?
At the same time, it’s great to see a director get to have his way with a movie that has this much money riding on it. In addition to being a $190 million investment in its own right, Warner Bros. hopes Kong: Skull Island will hook up with its 2014 Godzilla movie, which also bent heavily to the will of its director to questionable effect, to form the basis of a franchise. This is the same studio that’s bragging about the “master filmmakers” it’s bringing in for its comic book properties, which have also been a series of famous catastrophes so far. But as the competing Marvel movies get more and more stale, risk-taking like this is still something that should be treasured.
It’s great that there’s originality and ambition here, and I wish it were in a better-executed movie. But this is this. This ain’t something else. This is this.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.