Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly Running Time: 118 minutes
“Let them fight”, the words of Ken Watanabe in the 2014 Godzilla movie and the words of more than a few disgruntled audience-members who wanted more monster mashing and less Aaron Taylor-Johnson gawping at the aftermath. Kong: Skull Island is nowhere near as coy in showing its monsters, with Kong and the various giant island beasts frequently shown getting into scraps both with each other and with the Jarheads fresh out of the Vietnam War who have intruded on their shores. Skull Island might not have much to offer other than letting them fight, but sometimes what you want to see from a giant ape is punching rather than pathos. It wasn’t actually beauty that killed the beast after all, it was the American military. Why shouldn’t he wreck those fools?
The movie’s interest in US military is present from the very beginning, an opening that sees fighter pilots from Japan and America (the latter played when he’s a few decades older by John C. Reilly) both crash on Skull Island in 1944 and fight with each other before realising quite literally that there are bigger threats for them to worry about. Jumping ahead to the 1970s, and various groups are brought together for an expedition to Skull Island. There’s a crew of scientists led by John Goodman, whose motives for the journey are very clearly not what they first seem. Tom Hiddleston is a former SAS officer and tracker paid to guide them through the jungle. Sent for their protection are a team of soldiers re-routed from their return from Vietnam, their leader (played by Samuel L. Jackson) carrying a thousand yard stare and a desire to redeem their defeat. Brie Larson is also along for the ride, playing a war photographer who makes wide eyes at monsters and is ignored whenever decisions need to be made. After a lengthy setup, they arrive to Skull Island, hubristically and duplicitously and destructively. Kong ensues.
Skull Island is a film with the kind of B-movie plotting where the monsters are the stars and the human characters exist to be railroaded along to be either awestruck or killed by them. Still, having assembled such a talented cast, the film has to accept responsibility for wasting them. Only Jackson is given the opportunity to perform what he was actually cast to do, loudly. John Goodman is Bryan Cranston’d (a la Godzilla) out of the film before his motivations and machinations can amount to much of anything. Splitting the focus between three parties once the group gets split up and the film gets going, there are too many characters and no decisiveness about which one is the lead, meaning that there’s no time to develop any of them. Cutting some of the dead weight, or even picking them off on screen more readily, would have gone a long way. Why shell out for Tom Hiddleston when any working actor today could play his side-eying Clutch Cargo? Even the screaming damsel antics of female leads of Kong films gone by would have given Larson something to do, as it is she barely even gets to develop a relationship with the big ape himself.
Needless to say, whenever King Kong and company are on screen, the film picks up, with a series of imaginative action set pieces. They perhaps never get better than Kong’s main introduction, destroying helicopters against a hot red sky in the closest the film gets to replicating Gareth Edwards style scale, but the other monsters have fun designs and a B-movie vibe the film pulls off much more successfully than its attempts at political critique. The Vietnam War makes for a good backdrop, and Skull Island recalls ‘Nam movie imagery and on a surface level, the paranoia and macho bullshit of the era, but its tone and perspective on the violence shifts on a dime and hard as it tries to make attacking King Kong a metaphor, the film doesn’t really have a thought in its head about war.
Fun but uneven, Kong: Skull Island does have plenty of action and it certainly doesn’t take itself seriously, a problem viewers may have had with other monster movies of recent times. The now-requisite franchise-builder, it does just enough to keep interest in whats coming next, but there are better films to be found in the same genre. What after all, is a king to a god?(3 / 5)