by Philip Price
In the vein of Marc Webb going from “(500) Days of Summer” to “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Colin Trevorrow from the quaint “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World,” Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have plucked indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts from the safety of his summer getaway that he so lovingly crafted in his 2013 break-out, “The Kings of Summer,” and thrust him into the world of blockbusters with literally one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history: King Kong. In an effort to re-boot the property that hasn't been touched since Peter Jackson's epic attempt in 2005 and build a cinematic universe a la Marvel with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 iteration of Godzilla, WB and Legendary have given Vogt-Roberts the keys to ‘Skull Island’ AKA the home of the titular Kong and several other species of creatures, most of which are prehistoric in nature, but in other cases-are species that come straight from the pages of an old school horror/fantasy novel. A place where those who own the earth really reside, the place that God forgot to finish. The place where not only a human tribe somehow still resides, but so is there proof of dinosaurs, of more than one Kong, and of devils from the deep that the best character in the film affectionately refers to as "skullcrawlers." And so, the question is-what has the director done with such an environment to elevate the mythology it inherently carries? What has he done to give this mythical island a real sense of place and of substance and of tangibility? Well, the answer to that question is more positive than what the response might be to, "How good is the movie overall?" as the movie itself is pleasant and fun enough, but the real value in the piece comes from seeing that of Kong do what audiences want to see him do on a large scale and creating a full-on world in which these unbelievably thin characters and rote plot exist. It is because this world in which these things exist does indeed feel so lived in and palpable that much is forgiven. Even the special effect that is Kong himself holds more weight and authenticity than one might expect with the film eliciting a real soul from the beast which is more than it can say for the majority of its human cast. “Kong: Skull Island” certainly has its issues and could benefit from having at least one protagonist other than the movie's eponymous monster that we could sympathize with, but in a strange turn of events the spectacle holds more significance than the non-existent emotions and ideas it seems to have never had any ambition of carrying. In that regard, this is very much decent enough popcorn entertainment-fine if not completely forgettable.
Set in 1973 the film begins by introducing us to crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) who are desperate to have their expedition to a previously unknown island approved and funded. They want to map this mysterious location that has just recently shown up on satellite images and was never known to have existed before. They get a begrudging approval from Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) before requesting they also be accompanied by a military escort. Cue the montage to ‘70s era southern rock of Randa and Brooks recruiting fellow team members that include former British Special Services Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his soldiers as played by Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Toby Kebbell (who also did the motion capture for Kong), as well as photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and you have a well-oiled machine of men and women walking up to the front doors of the unknown and more or less kicking them in. The cast only seems to expand as we get further into the expedition with great character actor John Ortiz playing a Landsat, the surveying company, employee and Jing Tian showing up as a fellow biologist to Hawknins Brooks who we'd heard nothing of prior to the team landing on Skull Island. The screenplay from Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) wastes no time in introducing us to the main attraction as the moment Randa, Packard and their fleet of military helicopters break through the storm that constantly circles the island we are privy to the wrath of Kong. This seems a direct reaction to the complaints around Edwards' 2014 monster movie where we only glimpsed the titular creature in increments and sparse increments at that. There is clearly no fear either from the writing team or Vogt-Roberts himself to show the main attraction in full, but more it seems their intent to give this character a full and well-rounded personality while sacrificing as much in their human characters. This is understandable given the intent of ultimately creating a new cinematic universe with these monsters and they being the ones we come to feel and root for rather than the dispensable humans, but as our admirable ensemble of talent march through the levels of the ‘Skull Island’ jungles no matter the fact they are destined to get picked off one by one, it would still be more dramatically effective and affecting had we any attachment to any one of them at all.
Because there is no connection to any one of the human characters and because the drama of the movie is intended to come from the conflicting ideas our two camps of characters are broken into there is no real logic over emotion or vice versa struggle going on within the audience because it's clear who the movie wants us to believe in and who it wants us to side with and so we, as viewers, are easily persuaded as there is nothing compelling about anyone or any one of their arguments in particular. Hiddleston and Larson do little more than pose and stare off into the distance while hinting at some kind of romance that seems to be present for no other reason than they feel like it's supposed to happen. Samuel L. Jackson is playing Samuel L. Jackson, but this time in the form of a war-obsessed Lieutenant Colonel who can't let a fight go and who seems to slowly (or rather rapidly) be losing his mind as he plots traps and tricks for which he can kill the mighty Kong in order to rescue his men that were left behind...or at least that's what he tells those who need convincing he's not just in it for the thrills. Goodman and Hawkins, despite the talents they are and the presence each of them naturally bring to the table, are one note characters designed to spout bits of information and exposition. What may be one of the more valiant efforts in terms of character development and chemistry is that of what exists between Mitchell's Mills and Whigham's Cole as they at least parlay a real sense of camaraderie to the point the picture gives Whigham one of the few genuinely human moments in a film dominated by colossal creatures doing battle with one another. Of course, there is one key cast member I've failed to mention yet and that is John C. Reilly who more or less saves this thing single-handedly in terms of caring about any percentage of the human factor. Reilly plays Hank Marlow (a nod to that of the main character in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) who crash landed on the island in World War II and has been trapped there ever since, becoming a part of the indigenous people's tribe and seemingly having given up all attempts at trying to escape. While Marlow may mostly be present so as to offer a means of transportation to the new human inhabitants of Skull Island, Reilly turns the character into not only the comic relief, but the character with the arc we most want to see resolved come the third act. He's the one we're most rooting for to survive because of what he's been through and for what the future may or may not hold as opposed to Larson's Weaver who seems to only be kept alive because she's too pretty to let pass and/or because the film makes a half-hearted attempt at giving Weaver the same dynamic Ann Darrow held with the beast in the original film.
“Kong: Skull Island” was never going to be about strong characters though, and it would be foolish to expect as much going in. Rather, this latest Kong is more about the adventure to be had and in this respect the film has a fun time getting schlocky to the extent that it is fun without being overtly campy. Rather, “Kong: Skull Island” is schlock through the lens of a mostly interesting vision rather than schlock through the eyes of a corporate boardroom. This is evident in the first 45 minutes or so especially as Vogt-Roberts delivers a handful of rather striking visuals. His sun-drenched color palette not only reinforces the time period, but the balmy environment that becomes broiling the longer our characters remain deserted. There is a momentum and excitement to the first act and a good portion of the second where we can feel the enthusiasm the filmmakers and cast have about being a part of a new King Kong film. The sweeping bright greens of Skull Island stand to symbolize the vibrancy of the ideas this rather novice feature filmmaker brings to this previously untouched landscape. As the film goes on and begins to stumble in its pacing-the story struggling to find new ways in which to prolong our characters stay-it also seems the creativity begins to wane as well as the quality of some of the special effects. It is almost as if all were on board and excited about the project and its prospects in the early days (presuming they shot in chronological order, which they likely didn't, but the point remains) and then slowly began to lose interest only cobbling the muddled middle sections of the film together because of the required running time necessary to qualify as feature length and the expense allowance they had at their disposal (the film carries a price tag of $185 million). Fortunately, the film more than redeems itself in the final battle sequence where Kong takes on the biggest of all of these legless subterranean lizards. The action in this section is terrific, integrating the human characters in interesting ways while keeping the camera wide enough for the majority of the sequence so that we are able to take in the beautifully rendered spectacle at hand. Sure, there are a few shots after the sun has set where the green screen feels as obvious as the stop motion did in the original and for large portions of the film it's not hard to glean this isn't exactly a good movie-the dialogue is particularly glaring in the film’s list of shortcomings-and yet it's surprisingly easy to let all of that go and simply have a fun time exploring this dangerous world. There is more than enough here to justify seeing this icon of monster movies on the biggest screen possible and while the human character are thinner than the latest smart phone Vogt-Roberts is smart enough to let the big guy do his thing and do his thing he does.