Nature has a secret hierarchy and, despite our hubris, humans are nowhere close to the top of it. That was the surprising truth discovered by monster-hunting government organization Monarch in Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot of the famed giant radioactive reptile. It’s a fact we definitely get reminded of in Kong: Skull Island, the second entry in Legendary Pictures’ new shared Monsterverse, but unfortunately in a very meta way: monsters rule, humans are almost completely inconsequential.
This new spin on the Kong mythos sees Monarch scientists Randa (John Goodman) and Brooks (Corey Hawkins), piggybacking off military operations at the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, to undertake a mission to a previously undiscovered island in the Pacific. Accompanying the Monarch men are ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), acclaimed wartime photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a group of fellow scientists and a small platoon of soldiers led by US Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).
Flying in via helicopter squadron through an opportune gap in the perpetual storm system that rages around this “Skull Island”, the team proceed to drop bombs in order to map the terrain using seismic waves. Except, as one character later puts it, “you don’t go into somebody’s house dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight”.
And it’s a fight that Kong, the impossibly giant ape king of the island is happy to take to them. Several moments of disbelief, bloodcurdling screams, and fiery helicopter wreckage later, and the few surviving members of the group have been strewn across the island. Completely cut off, they have three days to make it to a prearranged extraction point on the opposing coastline.
They get some unexpected help in the form of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a fighter pilot shot down in WWII who has been stranded on the island ever since. But even with Marlow’s help, it’s a trip fraught with peril as the group soon find that there are far more monstrous creatures between them and their exodus than just Kong. In fact, he may just be their only hope.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has really only been known for intimate, character-centric dramas, with zero experience when it comes to bashing and smashing together hundreds of millions of dollars of computer generated pixels on-screen. And yet, it’s with the latter where he really shines, with Kong: Skull Island being a visual spectacle of note. Besides for the stellar work done by the wizards at ILM in bringing the towering Kong and the various other monstrous inhabitants of Skull Island to life, its Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong’s exceptional framing of scenes that really stand out. The film is littered with many a jaw-droppingly gorgeous shot that feels like it was expressly designed to be admired as a beautiful canvas print on a wall. Whether it be Kong silhouetted against the sun as choppers swoop in, or Kong’s intense visage wreathed in flames, or many other moments of arresting beauty, this is simply stupendous work.
The exact opposite holds true for most of the characters of Kong: Skull Island though, as it’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie be this wasteful with its talent. Hiddleston and Brie receive top billing here, as is expected given their Hollywood status, but here they’re blandly resigned to just “speak in a British accent while wearing a tight t-shirt” and “know how to use a camera” respectively. The rest of the group fare no better, being no more than a collection of movie clichés: the jokey one, the serious one, the weird one, the one you just know is going to die an especially gory death, etc.
What makes this even worse is that several cast members are completely superfluous. Not only do they do nothing, but they do the exact same nothing that other characters do. You could easily have halved the cast, and Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein’s script would barely have needed more tweaking than just assigning the reams of clunky expository dialogue and occasionally very silly actions on display here to one of the remainders.
The only exceptions to the poor character handling here are Jackson’s Packard and Reilly’s Marlow. Jackson is in full-on vintage great vengeance and furious anger mode, as a veteran soldier who can’t let go of the war. Watching his downward mental spiral, as he decides to rather take revenge against the giant beast who killed his men – after they attacked it unprovoked! – than try to get off the island, is a treat. Meanwhile, Reilly is the undeniable beating heart of this whole endeavour. His arc, a mix of scene-stealing screwball comedy and heartstring-tugging pathos, is the only story worth caring about here, and Reilly completely sells it with an effortlessly likable showing.
As for Kong himself, he has his own issues. While the ape – the biggest he’s ever been on-screen – gets to engage in several fist-pumping moments of monster-on-monster fisticuffs, each punctuated by its own bout of grin-inducing coolness, there’s really not much more to him than that. We get told that Kong is a tragic king, but we never get to feel it. For all its flaws, Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong at least made sure to make Kong into a believably human-like character that you cared for. Here he’s nothing more than an amazingly detailed special effect that gets to do cool things. They are really cool things though.
As the next step towards the inevitable titanic Godzilla vs King Kong tussle that Legendary have planned, Kong: Skull Island does enough to keep excitement alive in this franchise (especially if you stay till after the credits). As a standalone movie though, it often feels like nothing more than an absolutely gorgeous, amazingly shot tech demo. There’s no denying that the film’s monstrous action beats will keep several butts in seats, but there’s a better movie that could have been made here if the characters received the same level of detail as Kong’s fur. A kingly effort, this is not.