At one point in Kong: Skull Island, a character tries to make a noble sacrifice. It seems as though the film is trying for an emotional moment…but the character’s attempt hilariously fails in a C.G.I. fueled flourish. Whether this moment is intentionally funny or not, it will draw a laugh.
Here’s the really hilarious part: It actually works.
The moment pretty much sums up Kong: Skull Island. If you go in expecting great characters or meaningful moments, you are going to the wrong film. Despite having too many paper thin characters, humor that misses more than it hits, and treads very familiar territory, the film is a visually fun adventure that requires very little thought. And those are good to have every now and then.
It is 1973 and America is preparing to pull out of Vietnam.We follow a rag tag expedition put together by scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) as they explore one of the last unexplored places on Earth: Skull Island. Along for the ride are anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), former S.A.S tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the embittered Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who leads the military escort.
However, the king of Skull Island is none too pleased to have visitors. Kong strands the expedition in spectacular fashion, and the survivors must deal with the other deadly creatures on the island. But Packard has revenge on his mind, determined to kill Kong and finish his personal war.
King of the Island
Skull Island is visually striking, but it is more than the visual effects. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts utilizes effective cinematic touches, especially between Kong and Packard. Because one of these characters cannot speak, it is a pretty important to convey the rivalry visually and Vogt-Roberts, who has a background in comedy, does a surprisingly good job with it. We get several shots of Kong’s expressive eyes meeting Packard’s and they are some of the more compelling moments in the film.
Another pleasant surprise is the depiction of the human natives of the island. They are adorned with face paints and tattoos of blue, red and yellow, creating a unique style. I almost wish we could spend more time with them.
But Skull Island’s most important achievement is Kong himself. The ape is brought to life very differently from previous incarnations. For one thing, he is huge in this film, creating a brutish and frightening force of nature that is incredibly fun to watch.
Kong taking on Packard’s helicopters is one of the stand out scenes of the film, bringing the best aspects of the film together. The action is unique as well as visceral. There are touches of humor that sometimes work and sometimes fall flat (More on that later) that add a level of silliness, so it never gets too intense.
At the same time, Kong is not simply a brute. He is given some personality, revealing something of a “softer” side to him, but not in a heavy handed way, like in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005). While I was a fan of that film, it just became repetitive. Skull Island never forgets that it is an action film and while the Kong “character” moments are welcome, they are brief.
The island’s other creatures are interesting as well, though some work better than others. There is a giant spider that is pretty creepy, but the lizard creatures that serve as the chief adversaries are interesting but familiar. We have all seen giant lizards before, and quite frankly the one in this film is not the giant we want to see Kong fighting.
Overall, the creatures are impressive, but feel somewhat lacking…there is only one truly imaginative creature that briefly appears. There is not a lot of variety in terms of the creatures we see, creating very little depth. And that is not the only place.
Apocalypse Ape…Err, Now…No Wait, I Meant Ape
There are several accomplished actors in Skull Island: Goodman, Jackson, recent Oscar winner Larson, and up and coming Hawkins and Hiddleston. But there are just too many characters here for anyone to develop any kind of depth. None of the actors is bad, they just are not given a whole lot to do. It feels as though the filmmakers made up for a lack of characterization by shoving as many characters as they could into the film.
Hiddleston and Larson are deadly serious in their roles, playing the token brooding hero and spunky heroine. Hiddleston’s character is given hints of a back story, but it never amounts to anything. And Larson’s Weaver is not that different from supporting character San (Tian Jing); they are just there. They almost take some of the fun out of the film.
John Goodman is given some pretty clunky expository dialogue and disappears for long periods of time. Samuel L. Jackson yells his way through the island like only he can, but this is probably one of his most boring performances despite some effective visual moments with Kong. We have seen this character before and Jackson can play a character like this in his sleep.
Packard is given something of an arc, with the film’s anti-war message, but the metaphor is so clumsily handled it never quit hits. Is the metaphor about modern wars against indigenous people or Vietnam specifically? Is that why the film is set in 1973? Skull Island never makes that very clear.
The only stand out human characters are John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, a World War II pilot stranded on the island years before, and a pair of Packard’s soldiers, Mills (Jason Mitchell) and Cole (Shea Whigham). They are the only ones who seem to be having fun in the face of the heady material Packard is throwing out there.
Marlow is an interesting character. While he infuses some humor into the film, his backstory is actually pretty compelling and he becomes the only human worth rooting for. The film might have been better served if his character was the main protagonist.
Skull Island’s humor is also a problem. When it hits, the comedy gets some decent laughs. When it misses, which it often does, it is a little painful to see. Many of the jokes feel like they skip directly to the punchline, completely undercutting any laughs they could get.
All of that said, I think of scenes like the one mentioned at the start of this review. Skull Island is supposed to be fun, and whether the filmmakers intended it or not, that scene is incredibly fun because it is so over the top. Moments like that are all over this film and you happily go along with it. There is one scene involving a katana, poison gas and bat creatures that is so hilariously and unapologetically silly it is a joy to watch it.
Essentially this is what Skull Island is: Unapologetic. It is a big, bad monster movie that does its very best to entertain you. It is like that free swinging baseball player, constantly aiming for the fences. It takes big swings and sometimes misses, but when it does connect it is…well, it isn’t quite a home run, that may be going too far. It’s a double at best.
Summer Movie Season Begins
Skull Island is by no means a perfect film or a shining example of cinema. Depending on your tolerance for lacking characters and hit or miss humor, this is a film you can enjoy. Just check your brain at the door and let the silliness wash over you.
SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10