Review: 'Skull Island' a Minor Kong Affair

Review: 'Skull Island' a Minor Kong Affair

Imagine a version of King Kong where Carl Denham, John Driscoll and co. never capture the titular beast and bring him back to New York and you’ve got Kong: Skull Island, a modest adventure that has so much fun delivering roller-coaster monster movie thrills that it forgets to tell a meaningful story.

It begins during WWII over the Pacific with a throwback to John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific, of all things, as American and Japanese pilots crash-land on a desert island and continue the fight by hand… until Kong shows up to (presumably) devour them.

Flash-forward to 1973 and the end of the Vietnam War, and a team of monster hunters (led by John Goodman’s Bill Randa) piggy-back onto a scientific expedition to Skull Island with a military escort headed by Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard.

The plan: map out the area by dropping devastating seismic charges all over the island. Uh-huh. Standard procedure, I can only assume, but understandably Kong doesn’t take too kindly to the bombs. Just to make sure we know this is bad, the filmmakers throw in some insert shots of cuddly wildlife creatures caught up in the blasts.

Along for the ride are ex-British secret services hired gun James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). They’re ostensibly the heroes of the picture, but the characters are so thinly sketched I found it hard to muster any interest in them.

Meanwhile, I found more interest in the primary human villain: Jackson’s vengeance-fueled Lieutenant Colonel, who watches Kong slaughter dozens of his men early on and sets his sights on revenge. His character is the only one who seems to have an arc, or real motivation - all the others simply want to get off the island - and while we know Kong is justified in protecting his turf, we understand Packard’s point of view, too.  

Supporting roles are filled by familiar faces, and talented actors we wished had more to do here: Toby Kebbell, Shea Wigham, Jason Mitchell, and Thomas Mann are among the military recruits, John Ortiz and Marc Evan Jackson are among the scientists, and Corey Hawkins and Tian Jing are working with Goodman’s character.

John C. Reilly also shows up late, giving us some much-needed comic relief in the midst of the film’s second-half monster mash.

Kong himself, CGI animated and played via motion capture by Terry Notary, looks fantastic: he has real weight and presence, and each of his millions of hairs feels lifelike. It’s one of the best-looking fully computer generated creatures ever put to film.

But the featured creature villains are a bust. Scaly lizards that walk around on two feet, their design feels uninspired and their movement seems to defy logic. I’ll take a T-Rex, featured in previous versions of this story, over these generic kaiju beasts.

There are also giant spiders, squid, stickbugs, water buffalo, and pterodactyl-like birds to contend with, but with all the monster movie action even Skull Island’s Kong feels underdeveloped. He gets to bash some lizards and shares a brief moment or too with Larson’s photographer, but he’s missing the humanity of previous versions.

Skull Island was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who made the excellent Kings of Summer back in 2013. It’s a big jump from the indie world to a $200 million blockbuster, but the director keeps things moving fast and throws in colorful touches including some visual references to Apocalypse Now and a groovy early 70s soundtrack.

Rather than tie into the pre-established world of King Kong or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, this film seems to start fresh - and concludes with a post-credit sequence that ties into another franchise. Be sure to stick around until the very end.

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