Letterboxd Review - Kong: Skull Island (2017)
On the plus side, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has done the previously impossible in giving us a King Kong film that is not an adaptation of the 1933 original, nor is it anywhere near three hours long. Set in 1973, days after the end of the Vietnam War, it functions largely as a big, dumb monsters-and-explosions movie first, and a soft attempt at some world building and setup for the Mothras, Ghidoras, Rodans, and other monster mash stuff secondly. Because it's a period piece, its curiously overstuffed cast of one-dimensional characters played by overqualified actors are as likely to return as, say, Tommy Lee Jones and the Howling Commandos from Captain America: The First Avenger, or the entire Rogue One crew.
The film's new take on Kong himself, now expanded from a 25-foot alpha predator into a 250-foot benevolent mythical deity, is a strong new choice that was made mostly to facilitate a big sequel fight with Godzilla, but it also is an attempt to up the scale of this comparatively self-contained narrative. Ultimately, this is a standalone Kong film that conveniently features a bunch of dead-meat military characters, some recognizable faces to act as protagonists, and a whole bunch of CGI spectacle. As far as I'm concerned, in that commercial sense of drawing a crowd with excitement and fun, the film succeeds. The action is very aptly framed from a wide angle most of the time, giving Kong himself a bit of mystique you'd never think possible at this point. There's weight to the giant-size fights; when Kong punches something, you feel it, like a gunshot in a Michael Mann film. The danger of hiring a young indie director is their penchant for aping (sorry, sorry) their favorite elements or visual stylings from heavy influences. Vogt-Roberts is pretty aggressive about his references, but the sunrise-helicopter shots and Studio Ghibli inspired creature designs are all given with a sly wink. I have to protest the sheer amount of Creedence Clearwater Revival blaring through this film, though. I get it. It's like Vietnam. But with monsters. Didn't any of those fellas listen to some Hank Williams or something?
As far as the cast goes, I feel bad having to dunk on them. But none of them are doing very much, besides looking great. John Goodman is so underutilized that I feel bad I won't see him in another. Samuel L. Jackson is doing his thing, I guess. I think he could have leaned a lot further into his typical scenery chewing and it would have helped, but why try when you're competing with a 250-foot gorilla? As much as I really like Brie Larson in just about everything, her character had so little to do other than just "be a female presence for Kong to imprint on emotionally" that I didn't see a reason to cast an Oscar-winning performer. Tom Hiddleston is a great actor, here woefully miscast as some kind of rugged action heavy. And Toby Kebbell continues to show me he is much better suited to visceral motion-capture performances than he is at playing ordinary humans. The only real standout in the cast is John C. Reilly, playing a stranded WWII pilot stranded on the island for 28 years. As a sort of reverse Captain America, Reilly brilliantly underplays the fraying seams of his character's solitude and adjustment to this odd new world populated by ancient behemoths. There's something adolescent and honest to his character's humor that just doesn't line up with the wooden or boilerplate blank action performances opposite him.
The plot is not very complicated. In fact, we come face-to-helicopter with Kong only about twenty minutes into this 119-minute film, and from there it just becomes a question of escape. Wisely, Legendary and Vogt-Roberts decided to focus down on the more exciting bits of the basic Kong story, while trying to make their version distinguishable from the previous ones. I might have spent an additional ten minutes between some better character motivation for Hiddleston and Larson and some more structural place-setting with Goodman and his secret government agency devoted to kaiju defense. Especially when we're constantly told that this is a prelude to an entire shared series, it would be nice to allude to that series a little more than some easter eggs and a vague post-credits stinger.
It was a fun time for me, because I certainly didn't have any further expectation than "King Kong should beat up some other beasties," and I got that. It's a question of whether you're interested in a straight-faced creature feature without the pomp and circumstance attached to Edwards' Godzilla or Peter Jackson's King Kong. I think stripping out the grandiosity and just leaning into the B-movie tone helped a lot. I might be more conflicted, however, with whether it falls under the "smart-dumb" self awareness of a modern blockbuster, or just the bombastically dumb tackiness of a different kind of modern blockbuster.
This review is part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile where you can find more reviews not available here on the blog, including a list of films from his book, Cinema Autopsy, which is now available on Amazon.