This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
The year is 1974 and a group of explorers head out to map one of the last unexplored pieces of land on earth: the mysterious Skull Island, but when they get there they find things beyond their wildest imaginings.
What we thought
Rather than picking up where Peter Jackson's overly indulgent but ultimately rather spectacular take on King Kong from, shockingly, over a decade ago, Kong: Skull Island is a whole new take on the classic character that jettisons the more familiar story for something that plays more like a cross between Jurassic Park, Apocalypse Now and the more tangential moments in Jackson's King Kong. The result is an effortlessly fun monster movie but one that definitely pales in comparison to its most obvious influences.
Aside for being hopelessly derivative, almost by definition, the film's main problem is that it is kind of a bloated mess. An enjoyable mess but a mess nonetheless. Along with Kong himself and the half-dozen other types of monsters we meet on Skull Island, the film is overflowing with human characters – most of whom doing very little to add to the story around them. It most especially does a grave injustice to Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, two dependably top-notch actors who are presumably supposed to be the focal human characters of the piece, but who tend to get lost among the thousand and one elements that the film tries to juggle.
Worse still, Kong himself may be an exceptional creation that not only dwarfs all previous Kongs in size (he's something like four taller than Jackson's King Kong) but also as an artistic and technological achievement (think the latest Planet of the Apes movies but ballooned one-thousand fold), and yet he often feels like a guest star in his own movie.
The terrific motion-capture performance of Terry Notary as the ape king ensures that Kong is as much a real character as he is a technological wonder, but all the incredible work done by Notary and the team of visual effects artists is rather undermined by Kong constantly being pushed into the background in favour of a lot of thoroughly forgettable, incidental human characters.
This is all especially irritating as the film could have been improved immeasurably simply by getting rid of the platoons of military personnel that are effectively little more than cannon fodder (or monster chow, anyway) but end up clogging up the film and pulling attention away from the already plentiful elements that Skull Island needed to focus on. Keep Sam Jackson's villainous army general and dump the rest of his underlings for more time with the core half-dozen characters and, of course, the wondrous creatures of the film's eponymous island and we could have ended up with something really special.
As it is, the weak elements only stand out because of just how solidly good everything else is. Director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts is mostly known for indie dramas like the Kings of Summer or for the odd bit of TV work but his work here, aided and abetted by eye-catching cinematography by Larry Fong, is impressively cinematic; giving the film a real sense of excitement and wonder. And his decision to rather blatantly mimic Francis Ford Copolla's peerless work on Apocalypse Now is as surprisingly effective as it is cheeky.
Also, for an adventure film, it moves along at a fair old clip, so no matter how often it feels underdeveloped at some points and ludicrously bloated at others, it's very seldom less than entertaining. It also comes with a nice injection of both humour and heart thanks to the one human character that actually gets a chance to make an impact, John C. Reilly as a soldier who had been stuck on the islands for decades before the official exploration team finds him. Reilly is typically great in the role and he brings real humanity to this character whose sense of humour has remained intact despite his tragic circumstances. It doesn't change the fact that it's more than a little ridiculous to have him be the emotional core of the film, rather than the woefully underdeveloped “relationship” between Kong and Brie Larson's Ann Darrow stand-in – but that's kind of where we are with these “re-imaginings”.
So, no, Kong: Skull Island is far from the major return we might have hoped for of one of cinema's most memorable monsters, but it's bright and rollickingly fun enough to make the already announced King Kong vs Godzilla movie coming out in 2020 (yes, the latest Godzilla and King Kong movies are now a part of the same “movieverse” - thanks, Marvel) something to look forward to rather than dread.