Attention: Giant Ape found living in the South Pacific.
Such is the journey that the audience will take with Kong: Skull Island, the opening of which should immediately prepare anyone sitting in a theater for exactly that: giant ape action. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts and starring an impressive A-list cast, Kong: Skull Island is the second entry in the WB/Lionsgate “monsters” franchise, set in the same world as Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. While definitely set within the same universe, viewers should not go into Kong expecting the same kind of experience Edwards delivered in 2014; this film is drastically, dramatically different, and in some ways it is definitely not for the better. Very minor spoilers ahead, but nothing you didn’t see in the trailers.
Set in 1973 (more on that in a moment), Kong follows the journey of a surveying crew who heads to a mythical island in the South Pacific (the titular Skull Island) and encounters many strange and colossal beasts, chief among them Kong, whom the natives believe to be the God of the island. It is important to note the setting in 1973, because Vogt-Roberts beats the audience over the head with this fact for the entirety of the runtime. A self-indulgent period film such as this can be forgiven for a few transgressions, particularly when it decides to set a random character montage to some song from the late sixties or early seventies, but that forgiveness can only extend so far, and by the time Vogt-Roberts stops doing these ridiculous montages, it has been all but squandered away. It reaches a point of utter absurdity, and the biggest transgression of all is that this is done in place and in favor of any kind of meaningful character development whatsoever.
The cast list for this film is utterly amazing. From Tom Hiddleston, Corey Hawkins, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, and John C. Reilly, the cast is on-point and does their absolute best with the limited material available to them, particularly Reilly and Jackson, the former of whom steals every scene he is in. The issue is, there isn’t a meaningful character arc to be found among the lot of them, as Vogt-Roberts and company aren’t interested whatsoever in investing you in any of them. They end up becoming a somewhat endearing band of misfits by the time it’s all over, but one can’t say that the script paints them with anything but the broadest of strokes. Larson, for example, who won an Oscar two years ago for her fantastic work in Room, spends pretty much the entire film with one eye squinting through a camera’s viewfinder clad in a tighter-every-scene tank top. Reilly aside- who actually manages a shred of depth- every other cast member in the film has exactly one defining characteristic, and that’s pretty much it.
Now, to its credit, that’s not what Kong is trying to do. Kong is about, well, a giant ape that wants to protect his home, and it is him that the script absolutely sets out to invest the audience in. In this regard, the film is (mostly) spectacular. The CGI shots of the majestic beast are gorgeously detailed, and it does a good job of capturing the sense of scale seen in Godzilla. When the time for action comes, it doesn’t opt to move slowly or obscure the action like in Edwards’ film, so those who found issues with that will be more than pleased. There are a great number of scenes of Kong in full action in broad daylight, not shy or afraid to show himself to the audience. The film does succeed as the cinematography adapts throughout the film from tight, close-up and frantically-moving shots and actually grows wider and calmer as it progresses. In doing so the film’s visual aesthetic begins to shift the perspective from the human characters to Kong himself, and in so doing makes the at-first monstrous and vicious Kong into a character the audience can sympathize with and understand. There are some great shots and moments during some of the set pieces, and some of the quieter moments are beautiful; the homages to Apocalypse Now stop just short of playing Ride of the Valkyries, right down to Samuel L. Jackson going just a little Colonel Kurtz. It even manages to sneak in some contemporary thematic undertones as an anti-war film set at the end of Vietnam, but this is done without the least bit of subtlety.
Unfortunately, the visual aesthetic is also plagued with the biggest issue of working with 3D technology, that being the propensity to throw objects or creatures at the camera or to have these lurch into the foreground of a shot, meant to simulate the appearance of something “popping out” of the screen, and it is aggravating to watch. There are also some shots that are nauseatingly jarring, swinging the camera around with such reckless abandon that nothing is remotely discernable. Nonetheless, Kong has been realized for a whole new generation and, at least as far as his character is concerned, it absolutely honors the legacy of the towering beast; towering being the most apt term, given that this is by far the largest Kong ever portrayed in an American film (Toho’s King Kong v Godzilla ape was bigger). This film, for better or worse, seems to largely be a counterpoint to Edwards’ “less is more” approach with Godzilla, and that’s fine, but there should be a happy middle ground. Having a bunch of cardboard cutouts flop around on an island with a giant ape rampaging about is not it. Six out of ten stars.