In 1973, an eccentric government agent (John Goodman) organizes a geological expedition to the uncharted Skull Island. With a military squad led by a jaded Vietnam vet (Samuel L. Jackson), a British tracker (Tom Hiddleston), and a photojournalist (Brie Larson), they make their way to the island where they run afoul of the islands’ monsters and specifically, its behemoth ape King.
This movie isn’t an adaptation of the classic Kong story or a remake the way Peter Jackson’s 2005 film was. It’s entirely focussed on Skull Island and the attempts of the humans to survive, never going to New York or the Empire State Building. The direction of the story has to change as well to build up the continuity this film has with 2014’s Godzilla. But while this film is very different from previous Kong movies in story, it’s still incredibly familiar.
The people behind this film clearly wanted to make it in the style of a Vietnam War movie, particularly Apocalypse Now, but with shades of Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and even The Deer Hunter. From the soundtrack and cinematography to the characterizations, writing, lighting, and marketing, everything is taken from the bin of Vietnam tropes. It’s so intentionally hitting all the clichés, you half expect to hear Jackson’s characters’ inner monologue about how war is hell, or for Credence Clearwater Revival to start playing as the helicopters fly towards Kong. There are numerous shots and a lot of mise en scene that are obviously trying to relate a Vietnam motif, many of which you see in the advertising. The way the soldiers interact with the native creatures is very reminiscent of a war environment, they might as well be under attack from camouflaged guerillas. While intended as homage, it often comes off as pretty laughable, especially in terms of character types.
This movie has a pretty strong cast but sadly almost none of the characters are memorable. Jackson has a few decent moments but for the most part is just the typical Captain Ahab stand-in. Larson, Hiddleston, and Goodman are clearly variations on previous King Kong roles, but even as one-dimensional as those characters could be, they were still more interesting than this lot. Hiddleston and Larson in particular are painfully generic and despite being virtually guaranteed to survive, you don’t care if either of them dies. It’s good to see Jing Tian in a better movie than The Great Wall, but she’s under-utilized; as is Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, and the Straight Outta Compton reunion of Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell. The one good character is John C. Reilly as the Ben Gunn of Skull Island, having been surviving there since the Second World War. Because he knows the island better than anyone, relishes the chance to return home after decades, and has that likeable John C. Reilly humour, he’s the only character who earns your investment.
But maybe the biggest character failing is with Kong himself. Don’t get me wrong, he looks fine. In fact the CGI is generally decent and this movie very much like Godzilla, has a great sense of scale. It’s also worth noting this movie avoids the Godzilla mistake of cutting away from Kong during the most action-heavy moments. But Kong still doesn’t play as a big a part as he should. This is definitely the humans’ story, which isn’t where the focus should be in a King Kong movie. And it’s really unfortunate that this leaves Kong with little personality. Unlike Godzilla who’s always been a larger-than-life monster, Kong perhaps because he’s a primate, has always had an arc we can identify with: usually it’s the very human trait of love which drives his actions in the climax. But here that’s absent, and he’s little more than a monster for the humans to fear and admire. This is something the Jackson film, which I actually quite like, did superbly. It also captured, thanks in large part to Andy Serkis, realistic ape behaviour that very seldom comes across in this film.
This movies’ strongest assets are the action scenes, which though occasionally unconvincing (particularly one bit involving Hiddleston and a katana) and prone to some distracting 3D and slow motion effects, are pretty fun overall. There is some creativity to some of the monsters on the island and Kong throws down with them in enjoyable ways.
Kong: Skull Island has a unique look for a monster movie, some good action and decent effects, and one enjoyable character. If you’re a fan of Vietnam war films, you may well like the presentation, but for me it’s not original enough. That combined with a lack of engaging characters and especially a disengaging Kong makes it a movie that delivers on only the bare minimum.