Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ Has A Powerful Roar But Nothing To Say

Sure there's a big monkey fucking shit up, but there's not much else.

At 84, King Kong is getting pretty damn old. Granted, he’s a touch younger than others in his crowd — Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster hark back to the 19th century — but, unlike them, he began on the silver screen rather than in literature or folklore.

Created in 1933 by Merian C. Cooper, the massive monkey has inspired a string of sequels, reboots and remakes in the decades since. It’s been *checks watch* 12 years since the last one (Peter Jackson’s King Kong), so I guess it’s time to strap in for some giant ape action all over again. Welcome to Skull Island.

Kong: Skull Island is filled with everything you’d expect from a blockbuster in 2017. There are big explosions, awe-inspiring CGI and a stacked cast of talented actors. There’s even groundwork for establishing a cinematic universe (dubbed the “MonsterVerse” and, apparently, kicking off with King Kong vs Godzilla in 2020).

But — again, as you’d expect from a blockbuster in 2017 — it feels more like a “movie-flavoured product” (with apologies to Matt Zoller Seitz) than an actual honest-to-goodness movie. Despite its post-Vietnam War setting and posters modelled after Apocalypse Now, Kong: Skull Island isn’t interested in saying anything more substantive than, “Whoa, did you see that!?”

Apes of Wrath

For those of you entering the theatre hoping to see a big monkey fucking shit up, well, your needs will be met. The film’s most spectacular action sequence comes early in the piece, when a squadron of military helicopters are torn to shreds by our titular gorilla after dropping bombs across the verdant surface of Skull Island. (Yes, that’s its actual name. And, no, it’s not a peninsula.) There’s one particularly impressive shot from the inside of helicopter as it’s tossed about by Kong like a child’s toy, culminating in one of the best match cuts (a cut from one shot to another where the two shots are matched by the action or subject) I’ve seen in years.

There’s plenty else to like. Granted, most of the impressive cast is wasted. For instance, I was excited to see John Goodman as a scientist leading the expedition to — *ominous thunder* — Skull Island, but he isn’t given much to do. Neither is Brie Larson, as an (anti)-war photographer, nor Tom Hiddleston, as a tracker-turned-mercenary. Each wear tight shirts and show off how often they’ve been hitting the gym (Hiddleston has mastered the art of crouching down with the pretence of sniffing some grass or whatever while actually showing off his formidable musculature), but their thespian talents aren’t given a similar work out.

We get it.

The only real characters of note — aside from the big monkey — are given to Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly. (I guess you need a middle initial to get the good roles.) Jackson, continuing his trend of appearing in literally every film you watch, is believably unhinged as a Captain-Ahab-Colonel-Kurtz type. As Preston Packard, the commander of the military division assigned to assist Goodman’s expedition, he’s consumed by white-hot rage when his men are slaughtered by a territorial Kong. Kong is, much like Godzilla, really the ‘good guy’, so the stage is set for a showdown between man and monkey early on in the piece.

Reilly’s the ace in the hole, though. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts — following the Colin Trevorrow path of ‘white dude making relatively-well received indie and then somehow helming a film worth hundreds of millions’ — has a background in television comedy, but the film is only actually funny when Reilly’s on-screen.

Playing Hank Marlow, an unhinged castaway abandoned on the island (sorry, Skull Island) towards the end of World War II, Reilly offers the kind of no-holds-barred comic performance from films like Step Brothers, and single-handedly keeps the film entertaining. He even makes clunky foreshadowing funny! He can’t make the mute, noble-savage-stereotypes of the island’s human inhabitants any less offensive, but there’s only so much one man can do.

B-Movie Aspirations

Vogt-Roberts, along with screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dan Gilroy, exhibits a deep affection for cinema. His take on Kong is densely packed with references to earlier movies; not just the original King Kong, but also contemporary monster movies like Predator and Jurassic Park (there’s a very cute shout-out to that film in Jackson’s dialogue) and even left-field homages to, oh, Cannibal Holocaust. The film he’s most interested in emulating is, as suggested earlier, Apocalypse Now.

And why not? Apocalypse Now is a fantastic movie. But all of Vogt-Roberts’ clever little tributes — a military helicopter blaring Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ instead of ‘Flight of the Valkyries’, a makeshift raft travelling down a Pacific river, the Kurtz-esque compound where our heroes find Marlow — only serve to remind us of how little substance there is here. Apocalypse Now is a vital, contradictory, hallucinatory expulsion of a nation’s grief and anger; Kong: Skull Island has some sweet special effects. There’s no serious attempt to grapple with the politics of its setting, no effort to embed any kind of meaningful subtext or allegory.

There’s nothing wrong with Skull Island setting its sights on B-movie pleasures, of course. I mean, it would have been nice for a film that opens with the wink-wink-nudge-nudge line “Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington,” to actively engage with its post-Vietnam War setting beyond trite ‘war is bad, maaaan’ platitudes. It would have been nice for the film to strive, like Godzilla or, more recently, Logan, for something more than a pretty, forgettable accompaniment to your box of popcorn.

My real gripe with the film isn’t its modest ambitions, but that it’s not consistently fun enough. The paper-thin characters and rudimentary plotline are easy to disregard when the film’s firing on all cylinders. For me, though, the film’s aforementioned highlights are counterbalanced by a dreary midsection (particularly anytime Reilly’s not on screen). An extended showdown with a “skull crawler” — a reptilian foe of Kong’s — in a sprawling graveyard lacks suspense, coherent editing or, frankly, anything particularly memorable. There are too many scenes like this, where expensive-looking special effects stand in for actual captivating action.

(Sidenote: said sprawling graveyard plays host to the film’s worst line of dialogue, from Larson’s photographer: “I’ve taken enough photos of mass graves to recognise one.” Look, lady, there are huge piles of bones everywhere, you probably don’t need extensive experience to make that call.)

King Kong deserves a better makeover than this. He’s been around long enough to warrant a film that doesn’t just smoosh together underdeveloped characters, thin plot lines and the occasional impressive action sequence into a two-hour runtime that approximates a movie. He doesn’t need his own cinematic universe: he just needs a movie with enough heft to support a gargantuan gorilla. Kong: Skull Island, sadly, strains under its own weight.

Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas from today.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.