King Kong has never seemed like an overly complicated story (misunderstood giant monster falls for human girl just as greed and our collective fascination with spectacle plot his demise), but Kong: Skull Island, the not-really-a-remake-or-a-sequel that’s nonetheless a bit of both, acts as though its attempt to chart a new Kong-centric adventure is akin to proceeding without a safety net. While it’s clear this latest Kong tale is simpler in story than any of its predecessors, try telling that to screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
It’s basically a 70s-set journey to the titular island Kong calls home, where the usual shenanigans unfold minus any plans to ferry the oversized ape back to America for ill-advised display purposes. So it’s basically every other King Kong movie, except with the third act chopped off, which seems understandable considering this Kong is so large that nothing short of the hand of God could possibly transfer him from his land that time forgot to the Big Apple.
Sticking to Skull Island itself is a fun, fine idea, but the script can never figure out how to reconcile the differences between old and new. Part of the problem is clearly a big glaring lack of newness entirely, as we’ve already visited Skull Island several times before and seen its monstrous denizens brought to life via all manners of special effects wizardry. Surely the big screen is large enough to fit another Kong in the picture, though, and the CGI here certainly impresses, redundant and derivative as its images may be.
Vogt-Roberts and the effects team try to distance their Skull Island from the monster playground’s last cinematic iteration in Peter Jackson’s bloated but buoyant 2005 remake by designing new creatures like a super-sized water buffalo and some nasty two-legged lizards to counter Jackson’s more traditional dinosaurs. None of these new monsters engage Kong in as playful and imaginative a battle as the one Jackson staged between his Kong and a pair of V-Rexes, but there’s still enjoyment in watching the great ape swat at helicopters like flies and chow down on colossal calamari.
While this Skull Island lacks freshness, the much larger issue is that the plot is both too thin and too overstuffed. It boils down to simply putting a bunch of humans on the island and making them trek across the entire thing to reach some escape point in time to be rescued, which is so bland a plan that ridiculously boneheaded decisions have to be made just to allow for the insertion of extra action.
A lean chase movie wherein a group of characters try to get from point A to point B without becoming monster morsels could work well in such a setting as this, but Vogt-Roberts’ movie is ever convinced that what it’s aspiring to be isn’t enough and yet it’s consistently at a loss to dream up any ways to be something more. The result is a strangely stuttering mess that keeps searching for detours to prolong the inevitable escape.
Another tactic is to load up the adventure with so many characters that multiple deaths-by-monster can occur without making it feel like we’ve lost many people of worth. This in turn highlights another odd aspect of the overall picture, illuminating how tonally confused it often is. Some characters die in darkly comic fashion to elicit laughs, others die because they’re designated villains getting their comeuppance, and a couple are offed under such tragic circumstances that it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to tearfully mourn them or just shrug it all off as parody.
When the characters aren’t dying, they’re being cleanly separated into two groups, one which hates Kong and seeks to destroy him and the other which comes to understand that Kong is the hero in a battle against the bloodthirsty lizard monsters. This split cleanly creates human conflict to counteract the monster bashing, which is to be expected, but it’s far too convenient and simplified to be more dramatic than draining.
The groups are even partially divided by occupation just to make everything more obvious. The group looking to take down Kong is almost entirely comprised of trigger-happy military men who have embarked on one last mission before shipping home at the end of the Vietnam War, while the hero side is a mix of scientists and a self-proclaimed anti-war photographer played by Brie Larson as one of just two women in the movie emboldened with actual speaking lines.
This group also features a supposed tough-guy mercenary hired as a tracker who could be considered a more violent type than his fellow group members if he weren’t played by an utterly unconvincing Tom Hiddleston. The military men are led by Samuel L. Jackson, who barely tries here, but at least gets to add “faces off against King Kong” to his list of cinematic accomplishments that include being a Jedi and having his motivational speech cut short by an impatient mako shark.
Drawing such distinct lines between the two groups unnecessarily pushes this Kong into drably cliched territory for no discernable reason other than laziness. Vogt-Roberts and the writers are constantly jumping clumsily through hoops to keep the characters stuck on the island where the monster action is, which is weird because WWII-pilot-turned-Skull-Island-immigrant Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) explains at one point that the island is too large to traverse the whole thing on foot in the limited time the visitors have. Keeping everyone on the island long enough to fill two hours of screen time should be relatively simple, but the movie keeps insisting it’s hard.
So everyone continually runs in circles as the clock counts down, ensuring they have as much monster contact as possible, as if the only way to put these characters in peril is to make them dream up plans that involve walking slowly through the clearly marked resting grounds of the evil lizard creatures that the only regular resident of Skull Island who can speak English routinely identifies as extremely dangerous.
Clearly, Vogt-Roberts is banking on audiences caring so little about the story and so much about the monster carnage that this pitifully piecemeal script will get a pass. It’s not an entirely surprising approach given the generally simple set of requirements to make a monster movie work, but then it’s still baffling that the movie spends so much time on distractions when all it intends to do is shuttle the characters around the island.
Despite these many gripes, Kong: Skull Island remains amusing at times and relatively eye-catching at others. Reilly’s comic relief mostly works, which is important because every other joke falls flat, and Vogt-Roberts has enough flair behind the camera to occasionally mask the flatness of the script. There’s fun to be had on Skull Island, but with so much nervous nonsense on display, this whole endeavour feels more befitting of a court jester than a reigning King.