'Kong: Skull Island'
After a bloated three-hour Peter Jackson epic failed to revive the monkey’s fortunes, the mighty King Kong has returned in the big, silly, popcorn-munching epic ‘Kong: Skull Island’. It’s certainly one of the most purely entertaining movies ever headlined by the great ape, if also one of the least emotionally or intellectually involving.
This new rendition of Kong wastes approximately zero seconds before getting into the action, opening with American and Japanese pilots from WWII parachuting onto a mysterious island, fighting each other, and then being interrupted by the big hairy guy. Then we jump ahead to the 1970s (hey, why not?) where conspiracy-loving scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) talks the government into bankrolling a trip to a legendary island (shaped like a skull as the title suggests) that was recently discovered through early satellite imaging. Randa is convinced of the existence of a secret layer of the Earth filled with monsters, but before there’s any time to get to what that even means, he’s gathering a crew for the expedition. He gets a professional adventurer (Tom Hiddleston) to lead the team, an adventure-loving photographer (Brie Larson) to document things, and hires a military commander (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s still smarting about the Vietnam pull-out to provide transportation and weapons. As soon as they arrive, Kong strikes. The rest of the movie is a series of chases and attacks. None of the characters (Kong included) are developed beyond their character loglines, except for John C. Reilly playing that American WWII pilot from the prologue, who’s pretty damn happy to finally have some visitors.
The major criticisms slathered over Jackson’s massive and quickly forgotten ‘King Kong’ reboot were that the movie took way too long to get to the monkey and was overburdened with unnecessary characters. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (‘The Kings of Summer’) and his team of screenwriters certainly can’t be accused of making those mistakes again, for better or worse. Kong appears before any of the human leads and barely ten minutes ever pass without some sort of wild explosion of 3D-friendly action spectacle. To be clear, these are good things. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is a relentlessly entertaining rollercoaster that makes the old ‘King Kong’ Universal Studio ride feel slow and lacking in Kong action by comparison.
However, this new blockbuster also lacks any of the Kong tragedy and poetry that Jackson sought so hard to forefront in his version. The big monkey has no character beyond his desire to kick ass, and absolutely zero sense of any relationship between himself and the human characters – other than some mumbo jumbo about Kong being Earth’s protector against larger monster threats, which only makes sense if you know the future giant monster mash-up plans for this series. (Even if you don’t, be sure to stay after the credits for a taste.) That’s a shame, since Larson and Hiddleston essentially have nothing to do beyond posing heroically and acting extra hard to imagine all the monster action that was CG’ed around them months after shooting. The actors have enough natural presence and charisma to get by, but it a shame they don’t have characters to play and that ‘Kong: Skull Island’ ignores all the kind characteristics and wounded psychology that made the title primate so memorable in previous outings.
Thankfully, few viewers buy tickets for a giant monster movie like this for characterization or subtext. This movie is all about pure popcorn-shilling entertainment and it delivers the goods. Vogt-Roberts is clearly delighted to be in the blockbuster arena after a career in television and indie film. His movie is a restless collection of beauty shots and lightning fast editing anchored by wild monster action. The set-pieces are massive, relentless and gorgeously crafted in a “kid crashing pop culture action figures together in an expensive sandbox” way. Military hardware is flung miles by monkey paws and explosions happen constantly. It’s very goofy and self-aware in its silliness, designed to feel like having a slow drip of adrenaline plugged straight into your veins while a clown dances in front of your face demanding laughter. The movie might have very little to nourish the brain, but it has so much over-the-top spectacle that boredom is never an option and popcorn is always a requirement.
While the action leads are all fairly dull, Sam Jackson and John C. Reilly at least each get their own opportunities to steal the show. Jackson quickly goes nuts and essentially declares war on King Kong, which is just as delightfully insane as you’d hope. Some mild Vietnam War commentary is involved, but mostly it’s an excuse for a collection of clichéd acid rock needle drops, a handful of nods to iconic ‘Nam movies (especially ‘Apocalypse Now’), and an opportunity for Sam the Man to both scream at King Kong and say “Hold on to your butts” (both of which are as great as they sound). The real human treat is Reilly, who’s given a kooky man-out-of-time character, a silly costume and a series of scenes to improvise, and nails it. Reilly is the comic relief and heart of the picture, and he handles both tasks with ease. Plus, he also battles monsters with a samurai sword. You kind of have to see that to believe it.
Anyone heading into ‘Skull Island’ as a devotee of King Kong demanding a quietly tragic performance from the friendly monkey pushed into becoming a monster will be disappointed. There’s essentially no content here beneath surface pleasures. (The often herky-jerky editing that stripped characterization to the bone may have left some of that material behind in favor of even more monster action.) However, so much relentless entertainment is tossed at viewers’ eyeholes in IMAX 3D that you have essentially no breathing room to notice how empty the movie feels until long after you’ve left the theater.
The plot holes and wooden characters are less glaringly obvious than ‘Jurassic World’, so it’s likely that ‘Kong: Skull Island’ will be every bit the giant hit its studio is hoping for. It’s also a better movie than ‘Jurassic World’, so the success is deserved. Yes, it’s pretty dumb, but it’s a giant monster movie and that’s kind of a genre requirement. The good news is that the movie is also ten tons of fun, so bring on some the next round of giant monster mash-ups. After all, it won’t take much for a new ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’ to top the original. Insane though it may sound, that’s a movie worth remaking.