Despite showing hints of intelligence and nuance at times, the poorly-written characters and glaring lack of originality on Kong: Skull Island dooms it to being nothing more than another average monster movie to add to Hollywood’s already-overcrowded collection of skyscraper-sized disappointments.
Let’s face it. The world is tired of monster movies. The very idea of giant mythical monsters ambling about seems ridiculous; something to be left well behind by any self-respecting cinephile along with the stilted puppetry on Ultraman back in the good ol’ 60’s. While kaiju (literally “strange beast”) franchises continue to boom in their native Japan, Hollywood has meanwhile failed to produce a remotely interesting monster blockbuster since 2013’s stellar Pacific Rim. Kong: Skull Island is Western film’s newest attempt to emulate the success that such films continue to receive in the East, but once again, they fall oh-so-short of managing a proper comeback.
The premise for Kong: Skull Island is nothing viewers won’t have heard before. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War’s end in 1973, struggling government organisation Monarch secures one last chance at an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Monarch’s head honcho Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his young protégé Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are tired of being ridiculed, and are convinced that their expedition to Skull Island will prove that they are real scientists, and not just foil-hat hacks hanging on to the childish theory that Bigfoot exists. Travelling to Skull Island via Thailand and Vietnam, the duo end up recruiting a variety of companions for their trip, including Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) as the leader of their bloodthirsty, anti-pacifist army escort; James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a mysterious British Special Forces operative specialising in hunting and tracking and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a self-proclaimed “anti-war” photographer previously active in Vietnam. But dropping bombs on Skull Island mere minutes after their arrival turns out to be a bad idea on Randa and Packard’s parts, as – you guessed it! – Kong knocks their helicopters out of the sky one by one, stranding the unlikely gang on an uncharted island rife with deadly creatures, with no way to get home.
Kong: Skull Island runs for 118 minutes, and not one of those minutes offers a dull moment or a lapse in the action
You may have already correctly predicted the end of the movie just from reading that segment alone. But strangely enough, the film’s predictability hardly lets it down at all. When boiled down to its substance, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is a pulse-pounding, well-paced thrill ride, and one which surmounts the expectations of a typical action movie by bringing excellent cinematography to the table. While some scenes may border on being outrageously unreal, the film is nevertheless entrancing, and a welcome treat for the eyes. Wide angle shots of lush bamboo forests and birds-eye-view panning through azure lakes and majestic limestone cliffs are almost as breathtakingly beautiful as stills from David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth 2’. And the most visually stunning scene with Tom Hiddleston fighting primeval, reptilian birds amidst the billowing turquoise smoke of poison gas is undeniably beautiful, even though there is no point to the scene at all. Even the fight scenes between Kong and his serpentine enemies, the Skullcrawlers, are expertly filmed in a manner that does not resort to whirling, focus-less shaky-cam to denote the sheer scale of the action. Nor does the film devolve into a lurid mess of hyperbolic CGI as its finale approaches – one of the biggest mistakes that the film’s spiritual predecessor, 2014’s Godzilla, ended up making. Kong: Skull Island runs for 118 minutes, and not one of those minutes offers a dull moment or a lapse in the action.
Kong: Skull Island also surpasses the low standards that directors like Michael Bay set for action movies, by exhibiting some intelligence of its own. Throughout the film, viewers are presented with both explicit and implicit social commentary on the Vietnam War, and the irresponsibility of the American people both in relation to the Cold War and in the general scheme of things. This is particularly evident in the use of the film’s soundtrack, which is laden with classic, wholly American rock from the 60’s and 70’s. The American soldiers on the expedition are often shown hooking up their record players to loudspeakers attached to the sides of their fighter jets, blasting the likes of Black Sabbath and Creedence Clearwater Revival through their slipstreams as they drop explosive charges and wreak havoc on the forests below them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to note that the situation is an eerie parallel to the relentless bombing of Vietnam – except this time, not even the most hardened pro-war supporter will be able to morally align themselves with such mindless destruction. Most notably, halfway through the movie the companions make their way to a helicopter crash site while searching for a lost soldier, and find the speakers on the aircraft still working, albeit barely. A warped, claustrophobic version of America’s favourite rock music continues to echo through the destroyed forest in a remarkably poignant moment of reflection on the twisted mess that was the Vietnam War itself. Whatever Kong: Skull Island turns out to be by the end of its runtime, “cretinous” is hardly one of them.
Amidst this onslaught of more-than-slightly-adapted concepts and creature designs, it’s hard not to wonder if everything else in the movie will also turn out to be a copy of something
But there is a fine line to be drawn between paying homage to influences and directly ripping them off. Kong: Skull Island arguably crashes over that line with all the grace of its titular monster monkey ripping a giant squid out of a lake – yes, I kid you not; that actually happens in the movie. Apart from the few instances mentioned earlier, the majority of the film’s otherwise shrewd social commentary is presented in a near-exact duplicate of 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Director Vogt-Roberts appears to have gone through an incredibly systematic list ways in which he could rip off what is clearly the biggest influence on the film. A shot of mushroom clouds reflected in aviator sunglasses, as a moustached character flashes an insane grin? Check. Constant recurring images of red-hot flames throughout the film? Check. Samuel L. Jackson and Kong eyeballing each other through the flames and establish themselves as mortal enemies for life? Check! At the rate that Kong: Skull Island emulates Apocalypse Now, it really wouldn’t have been unrealistic to expect Robert Duvall to pop up a split second later, yelling “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” over the noise of Randa’s helicopter.
Vogt-Roberts and crew also pay their due respects to their Japanese influences, but some might say they end up paying a bit too much respect. And they don’t even try to hide it. The Skullcrawlers bear a glaringly obvious resemblance to Sachiel, the most recognisable monster from anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which Vogt-Roberts admitted was a huge source of inspiration for the character design on the film. The majestic water buffalo seen at various points throughout the film, while admittedly magnificent, also share more than a few features with the Forest God from Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Even the repulsively ugly spiders whose spindly, towering legs mask themselves as bamboo shoots are instantly identifiable as a near-complete copy of artist Louise Bourgeois’s seminal sculpture, ‘Mother’. The film even ends in the most overused, clichéd way it can – Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie, so of course it has to end with the classic money shot of Kong performing his signature chest-pound and roar! As if Jurassic Park and every other movie franchise based around a giant creature haven’t already squeezed the life out of scenes like those! Amidst this onslaught of more-than-slightly-adapted concepts and creature designs, it’s hard not to wonder if everything else in the movie will also turn out to be a copy of something. Kong: Skull Island chooses to tread on very thin ice with regards to ingenuity, and arguably collapses under the weight of everything it borrows or steals.
In addition to this, most characters in the film completely lack even the remote semblance of a personality, and are ultimately nothing more than flimsy excuses for people. The film takes so much time to establish the particular skills that each member of its motley crew has, only to do absolutely nothing with them. Tom Hiddleston’s masculine caricature James Conrad has no defining characteristics, apart from the fact that he is good in a fight, and occasionally spews out dialogue that is so stilted it forces Hiddleston’s usual acting prowess into hiding for the entirety of the film. Conrad is also meant to be a tracker, and is introduced to viewers as the man who is being paid an obscene amount to come on this mission because of that set of skills. Ironically enough, the only time he gets a chance to use those skills is when he looks at a mushroom, and then magically concludes that there is water nearby. “Are you lost?” retorts Officer Glenn Mills (Jason Mitchell). “Which direction is it in?” A wholly relevant question – but, unfortunately, one that Conrad never gets to answer, due to some ludicrous storytelling acrobatics conjuring up a conveniently-timed monster attack. If Conrad had been introduced as an average Joe simply tagging along on the expedition for fun, it would have made no difference to his character whatsoever.
leaving viewers dissatisfied and disconnected from most of the characters, because there is simply no reason to care about them
Even the female lead, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver, is treated no better on the character development front. Initially presented as a feisty, albeit stereotypically so, female character, Weaver inserts herself into the posse by sassing Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard (in a surreally amusing scene) and delivers some sharp, pertinent dialogue clearly meant to embody her as the character symbolising female empowerment and anti-war sentiment. But all that disappears after the first fifteen minutes of the film. Weaver only serves two functions for the rest of the movie – taking photos, and crying whenever she sees Kong for reasons completely unknown. And even when Weaver is doing her job as the expedition’s official photographer, the movie somehow manages to turn that against her character. Whenever she takes a photograph, the film switches to her point of view through her camera lens, capturing the scene briefly in a grainy black-and-white vignette. This starts off as a charming novelty, but ends up being a major annoyance after what seems like the billionth unnecessary freeze-frame on the mildly confused faces of Skull Island’s indigenous Iwi people. In fact, the attention she pays to the reclusive tribe is so grossly exaggerated in relation to everything else; one would think she had never seen an ethnic minority before, despite having experienced the eye of the storm of the Vietnam War.
…just remember to keep those expectations in check
There is, however, some redemption to be found in minor characters. Officer Mills is genuinely funny and often provides much-needed comic relief; even going past the token “wisecracking black guy” archetype through the nuanced presentation of his friendship with Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham). Cole is also a double-edged character, serving as both comic relief and as a pointed jab at the lack of sympathy that most Americans initially had for the Vietnamese – another rare moment of acuity amidst the tedious drudgery of the rest of the writing on Kong: Skull Island. And the real star of the show is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), an army lieutenant who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. Marlow is constantly droll in his dim-wittedness, but as a veteran of the island, is also a character that audiences will not have trouble taking seriously. Reilly’s fantastically nuanced, yet hilarious performance gives Marlow the verve that sadly, no other character in the film has. This is because there are just so many characters to focus on and so little time spent on each of them, that the overall lack of development just ends up wasting a talented cast on half-baked silhouettes of actual people. Even the small ideas that are presented to viewers have so much initial potential – such as the strange, almost empathic connection between Mason Weaver and Kong, and the subtle hints at a blossoming friendship between Brooks and biologist San Liu (Jing Tian) – but never come to fruition; leaving viewers dissatisfied and disconnected from most of the characters, because there is simply no reason to care about them.
Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to like this movie. Sure, you can’t expect full originality from a movie in a franchise that has been reproduced ad nauseam at least once per decade, but copying a mishmash of iconic influences and throwing some flimsy excuses for main characters into a pop culture blender is by no means the key to making a decent movie. Make no mistake – Kong: Skull Island will be everything you’ve come to expect. But, what with the trend of pure mediocrity running throughout monster movies nowadays, just remember to keep those expectations in check.
Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures