The giant ape from a mysterious island in the Pacific gets yet another cinematic reboot in Kong: Skull Island, Warner Bros’ and Legendary Pictures’ second entry in the so-called “MonsterVerse,” a Western effort to give the MCU treatment to all of your favourite kaiju film stars. The concept seems laughable (and it surely is), but it’s those moments where Kong realises what it is that make it watchable and even point to a gem of a film hidden inside an exhausting mess of digital destruction.
Kong: Skull Island is more of a reimagining than a remake, eschewing many elements from the original in favour of a plot that falls in line more with the proposed cinematic universe while still managing to retain many of its themes at a shallow depth. Rather than a film crew in the 1930s, it’s a pair of fanatical monster hunters in the 1970s escorted by an army platoon, a mercenary, and a wartime photographer that make the journey to Skull Island in a purported effort to discover what there is to discover before the Russians do (as was the motivation for literally everything back then). After an unfortunate initial encounter with the eponymous gorilla, part of the crew seeks revenge on the beast while the others learn about the island’s hidden, terrifying secrets. Plenty of monster-on-monster combat ensues.
I wasn’t enthused at all with the first film in the series, the 2014 Godzilla reboot, and was worried that Kong would be more of the same. That film had taken some serious risks by relegating Godzilla himself to a minor role, a move that could have had immense payoff if the screenwriter hadn’t utterly failed to fill the void with interesting characters. This is a common issue I’ve found with “big things fighting each other” films, an inability to make the viewer actually care or identify with what’s going on through hackneyed human drama surrounding big, nonsensical CGI melees. Kong: Skull Island sidesteps this pitfall by establishing relationships between the human characters and Kong, both as a perceived enemy and later as a guardian, which in turn feeds the conflict between the human characters. It’s an intelligent use of what remains a pretty boneheaded concept, and it immediately elevates the film a cut above the likes of Godzilla and Transformers.
Remarkable still are some notably thoughtful approaches to the material as well from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, though I worry that I may speak in undue superlatives given that there’s simply an artistic competency present here that most films in the genre have been missing over the past twenty-odd years. The cinematography is superb and pleasing to the eye, commanding attention from the opening shot. Nearly every frame is rich with vibrant colour, and Vogt-Roberts approaches the setpiece moments with visual playfulness and clarity that makes them both palatable and digestible, for the most part. It’s a far more optically engrossing picture than would be expected judging by its ilk.
The film wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of influences as well. Apocalypse Now is channeled in its Vietnam-era jungle river exploration, helicopter squadrons, and insane military officer with an unhealthy fondness for napalm, all set to the tune of 60s and 70s rock, while Pacific Rim is present in its delicious colour palette and crisp showdowns between colossal beasts. The monster fights really do have a special sort of lucidity to them, making it at the very least easy to understand what’s happening, where it’s happening, and why it’s happening, as opposed to Transformers‘ hazy brawls that feel like you’re watching while freshly concussed. I’d even go as far as to say a sequence where Kong crafts makeshift weapons from his surroundings, altering the scene almost into a martial arts action sequence, is borderline inspired.
However, it’s rather flattering to Kong: Skull Island to compare it to the likes of Apocalypse Now and Pacific Rim, as it ultimately doesn’t come anywhere near emulating the quality of either of those films. Vogt-Roberts seems unable to capture an effective tone for the film, an overarching layer of self-seriousness choking its underlying B-movie embrace. Most of the cast plays it straight; only John C. Reilly, playing a WWII pilot who’s been stranded on the island for nearly three decades, seems to get the joke, running his lines in a manner fit for a Robert Rodriguez-helmed homage to schlock. Honestly, if everyone else had brought more levity and camp to their performances, this would have been a top-shelf popcorn flick.
Instead, it’s a bit of a bore like most of its counterparts. The script is bland and just can’t support the film’s graver elements. Attempts at banter and recurring between the soldiers fall embarrassingly flat and offer nothing beyond irritation. While there’s plenty of eye candy, the heavily CGI-reliant action scenes still become tiresome and overlong on a couple of occasions. Some scenes are too frenetically edited. The characters, while not anywhere near as dismal as Godzilla‘s, remain a humdrum group of one-dimensional figures with very particular purposes in moving the plot along. And it’s a shame, really, because the film is peppered with moments like the discovery of a gigantic water buffalo or a lost tribal civilisation that just about demand awe before quickly dragging you back down to earth with another vapid joke about writing wartime letters. Kong: Skull Island is a surprisingly not terrible film, which almost makes it more disappointing that it so, so narrowly missed the mark.