Kong: Skull Island revives a cinema icon for a bombastic blast through the jungle; but is it a sweeping monster mash or a messy graveyard smash?
King Kong is a iconic image of cinema history; first climbing atop the Empire State Building in 1933, he was most recently adapted by the one and only Peter Jackson back in 2005 in a three hour epic that was intended as a modern reimagining of the original. In 2017, the keys to Kong's kingdom (and a $200 million budget) have been handed to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts in what is only his second feature length directorial effort following 2013 indie comedy The Kings of Summer.
Dropped into a new era (the mid-70s), Kong: Skull Island doesn't follow the same template; it's about a secretive organisation called Monarch dispatching a team of experts to a mysterious island in the South Pacific called - you guessed it - Skull Island. Here they discover all manner of nasty bugs and monsters - oh, and a giant ape that rules over the island and swats away attack helicopters like flies.
Leading the expedition is Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins); they recruit a team of experts and military personnel, such as James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson). Don't get too attached to these people though; the real selling point of Kong: Skull Island ain't its characters.
All of the people listed above (and a whole lot more) can be summarised by simply listing their occupation and defining character trait. For example, Conrad is grumpy and good at tracking animals; Weaver is a pacifist photographer; Brooks is a chipper geologist; Packard is a disillusioned career solider; and so on and so forth until you've run through the entire ensemble of forgettable fodder for Kong to chow down on.
Because that's essentially all they are; a random collection of people brought together so that Kong and the other beasties on Skull Island have something to stomp and squash. None of the characters are particularly interesting and none of the actors give reasonably good performances because nobody is given anything remotely exciting or compelling to act out; at a stretch you could say that Larson was 'good' because she gets to butt heads with Packard on occasion, but then she spends the other 70% of the time looking aghast at stuff in the middle distance and occasionally taking a picture.
Hiddleston isn't particularly convincing as a gallant hero; Jackson gets an undercooked arc about his time in Nam; Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann and Jason Mitchell all play soldiers with randomly assigned traits like 'brave', 'jittery' and 'sassy'.
The main issue with Kong: Skull Island is the variance in tone; Vogt-Roberts can't seem to settle on two or three, let alone one. It jumps all over the place, from straight-up war film to aloof family adventure and back again. When it works, it works really well - but too often there are adjacent scenes that feel tonally inconsistent with one another. John C Reilly is a particular notable sticking point; he plays a WWII soldier stranded on Skull Island who has gone slightly mental. He gets a lot of the goofy one-liners but often these feel at odds with the rest of the movie's more serious appraisal of war.
Also, the filmmakers blow their load to soon, putting Kong up there on the screen in all his glory in the first half an hour. The aura of mystery and suspense that surrounded Godzilla in Gareth Edwards' 2014 film is all but absent here; this is a bombastic barnstormer that makes sure you get plenty of bang for your buck, even if it's at the expense of tension.
And yet, putting aside all this criticism, I still had a good time with Kong: Skull Island. It's not a great movie by any stretch, but it is an enjoyable one. It's the kind of film where you can just recline and relax, letting the noise and bombastic visual effects wash over you.
Even though the characters are naff and the narrative is a little jumbled, the film still looks INCREDIBLE and more than enough to keep you entertained for 90% of the runtime. The fight scenes are a treat too; expertly choreographed, the duels between Kong and his many foes are exciting and clearly an area the filmmakers paid particular attention to. Vogt-Roberts uses a lot of dramatic slo-mo and speed ramping to make these sequences especially stylistic; it's the kind of thing you're going to love if you're 12 and hopped up on Frozen Coke.
It's a totally different film to Jackson's version that has a totally different set of goals. Kong: Skull Island wants to entertain you, getting in and out relatively quickly without stopping to let the thin character work sink in. That might be enough for some and relatively disappointing for others.
The Verdict: 7/10
Fun but flawed, Kong: Skull Island is a big battle that rattles along at a frenzied pace and too often forgets to pause and take a breather. The visuals are astounding but the characters are thin and cliched, wasting a talented cast on hammy dialogue and a jumbled plot that needed more focus.
Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas across Australia now