(Editor’s note: the following review contains mild spoilers for the plot and characters of Kong: Skull Island.)
To be honest, writing reviews for a site like Twin Cities Geek poses certain challenges for this film writer. Juggling code switches and deciding on a point of view are usually accompanied by a few wardrobe changes. Tweed jacket and pipe? Famous Monsters T-shirt and Surly beer? Which reviewer am I when I write about geeky movies for a geeky crowd? Surely, I can’t be expected to place Kong: Skull Island on the altar of great cinema. Can I? Well, no, but it would appear the filmmakers behind Kong: Skull Island were as confused while making it as I was while watching it.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. Yes, Kong shows up early and begins the mayhem long before what’s traditional for this genre. Yes, CGI Kong holds up on the big screen, and he does kick plenty of prehistoric butt on his way to getting the plot going. Yes, there is no doubt whatsoever that Legendary Pictures is building a Kaiju franchise, like Marvel, and they are putting a good amount of money on the table for the remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla, whenever that might arrive. Godzilla’s 40 stories tower over this film from open to close. If you are a Godzilla fan, you really do need to stay for the after-credits stinger. Like, really.
Kong: Skull Island gets a lot right. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers all the smashing, crashing, and roaring that Kong and Kaiju fans will want from this return to Skull Island. There’s an exciting visual dynamic that keeps the camera swinging, sweeping, and tracking throughout most of the movie. The film’s writers (all four of them) make an effort to keep the tragic nature of Kong true to the original film and disrupt very little of the canon in their effort to bring something new to the story. The performers stay in character and thankfully don’t slide into campy or painfully self-conscious acting; they look like they belong in this world, for better or for worse. Happily, the film manages to avoid the most egregious sins of big-budget monster movies and actually takes its job seriously. Edward Cheng and his team of producers understand that no one wants to pay $15 for a a giant monster movie and be told they’re a child or an idiot, but that didn’t stop them from hedging their bets and trying to make four or five different movies at once.
In short, Kong: Skull Island is a Hollywood Kaiju. You can argue about tropes, appropriation, and intent, but this is the latest entry in a subgenre that has not been terribly successful. At its best, modern filmmakers can mine drive-in cinema for melodrama and style, but then add the intelligence and the budget that will keep it from feeling too schlocky (and we all know how much Hollywood hates schlock). At its worst, mainstream cinema tries to save B-movie traditions from themselves. It’s like they think we don’t know that creatures like King Kong and Godzilla aren’t actually real. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t completely escape this. It is an adventure movie. It is a war satire with plenty of references to Apocalypse Now. The heroic guide for this escapade is none other than James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a good-hearted mercenary who merges Han Solo with Indiana Jones, but not without throwing in some Kevin Costner for good measure. He’s a commando and a jungle warrior who’s also just a swell guy. Surprisingly, he doesn’t actually tell them to “never get off the boat.”
Kong: Skull Island is also neo-pulp, and this is where it gets into real trouble—there are no clear signs of trying to undermine the somewhat troubling tropes of classic pulp movies. Sure, stranded World War II pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), breathes life into a good chunk of the film, but he’s never amounts to more than a stranded World War II pilot (who, by the way, managed to crash his P-51, painted in Normandy stripes from the European theater, on a Pacific island . . . um, what?). The writers get a step closer to giving the “exotic islanders” an actual culture, but it’s really just another version of the island paradises and naïve utopias that many pulp writers fantasized about. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is a tough-as-nails photojournalist, but that doesn’t stop her from being posed in some very Tomb Raider positions or being dropped into a half-cooked nod-to-Fay-Wray romance for part of the film. Presumably this was done to keep Kong loyalists happy, but I see what they did there and it was just silly. Beauty doesn’t even come close to killing the beast on Skull Island.
This movie is also a comedy, but it’s one of those sad comedies that can’t figure out when it’s time for a wry action-hero catchphrase-to-be or when it’s time to shut up and let the giant ape raise unholy hell amidst nothing more than the soothing sounds of jungle purgatory. Vogt-Roberts has a background in comedy and he tried his damnedest to make Kong: Skull Island recall the worst moments of the Indiana Jones films. Maybe he went to the George Lucas School of Comedy™? There are plenty of humorous moments to be enjoyed, but sadly, most of these are not in the form of witty dialogue or sharp wisecracks.
You’re probably starting to get the idea by now, but I should mention that Kong: Skull Island is also both a war movie and an antiwar movie. Look, sending a Vietnam-era helicopter “squadron” (very little time or money went into military advisors on this one) to a mysterious jungle island to fight a giant monster looks totally rad on paper, but shoehorning it into a halfhearted “homage” to one of the greatest war movies of all time is a bit of stretch. Really, we monster movie fans are a little bit flattered at the effort, but it’s clear someone above the line got distracted and forgot they were making a movie about a rampaging prehistoric gorilla named King Kong. Then, they forgot what they were trying to do and we’re left with a movie completely inconsistent and at times contradictory. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) does have a character journey that is not too far from Captain Benjamin L. Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey upriver, so you have to wonder if Kong didn’t utter “the horror” in some early draft of the script. I suppose we could read this inconsistency as a comment of the pathos of human foibles in the face of apocalyptic and terrible pagan forces . . . but I’m guessing some unpaid intern got the drafts mixed up when they were printing out the shooting scripts. (“Oh, we were supposed to take out the pink pages?”)
In the end, if you went into a movie about a giant ape and expected to see something with its eye on awards season, I guess you have no one to blame but yourself . . . and you probably stopped reading a long time ago. Kong: Skull Island is a solid monster movie and offers fans what they have to come to expect from the genre: the good, the bad, and the awful. There was hope that this movie would get things mostly right and help push the genre into modern cinema (like Logan), but those hopes lay broken on the misty rocks of Skull Island. Perhaps the post-credits sequence is a message to the loyal fans—not quite an apology, but a way of saying, “There are bigger and better things coming.” All the ancient slumbering gods will rise, again, and we will be awestruck as they reduce our monuments to broken shards. This will be terrible, glorious, and worth every penny we spend to see it.
At least, that’s what this writer—who is up way past his bedtime in late-night movie pajamas—is hoping for.