“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” – Joseph Conrad,
Almost completely devoid of anything resembling story or fleshed out characters, yet abundant in thrills, awe-inspiring action, and countless visual delights, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a gorgeous mess of a movie, an unnecessary endeavor that manages to ride its stylistic flourishes and impressive effects to rousingly entertaining heights, even if it never escapes the shadow of its half-baked script treatment. A director of several episodes of television, including the underrated YOU’RE THE WORST, Jordan Vogt-Roberts was targeted to helm a new King Kong feature following his mildly successful indie feature debut, THE KINGS OF SUMMER. According to an interview with Vogt-Roberts, the original screenplay he was shown was set in 1917, and while he felt it had some great aspects, it wasn’t the type of film he was interested in making. When asked what type of film he’d like to make, he eventually responded with the idea of setting the monster film in 1970s Vietnam war era, feeling a connection between the disillusionment and confusion of the period and our current climate. And so, with approval from the studio, he set out to mash together a ginormous ape with as many elements of APOCALYPSE NOW he could muster. The result is a magnificent spectacle filled with stunningly rendered creatures, beautiful imagery, brutal and spectacular destruction on all levels, and a bloated ensemble of talented actors trudging through the wilderness while weighed down by writing that gives them practically nothing to work with. There’s many attempts throughout to make statements on the brutality of war and the irrevocable marks left on those who experience it, and while they are far from untrue, they can’t help but feel shoehorned in amidst the bone-crunching slug fest of Kong vs. everything. Overall, however, it amounts to enormous heaps of ridiculous fun, but if it had given as much attention to fleshing out its human characters as the outlandish world Kong inhabits, it could’ve achieved something truly special.
Kicking things off with a literal plummet towards earth, Vogt-Roberts wastes no time in throwing us into the action as two downed WWII pilots chase each other through the jungles of an uncharted island only to discover the King himself. Then, with a credit sequence mixing historical footage with fiction, the story of the United States journey over a period of thirty years is effectively and efficiently told, arriving in the midst of the turmoil of the 1970s. Here, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeks to map out the uncharted territory of “Skull Island”, a place he believes to be the home of ancient creatures beyond our understanding. He enlists the help of a British tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a military escort of a Vietnam war helicopter squadron originally destined to return home, under the guise of aiding him in surveying the area. There’s also a photojournalist, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), along for the ride, believing it to be a secret military operation. The squadron, led by the unrelenting and unhinged Lieut. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), carry the scientists and crew through the dangerous swirling storms surrounding the island, and proceed to drop explosives on the surface to get a better picture of the geography lying beneath. They soon discover much of it is hollow, but their bomb-dropping quickly upsets the inhabitants, particularly the gigantic Kong himself, silhouetted against the setting orange sun. Kong makes quick work of the helicopters, swatting them out of the sky like pesky flies, and the survivors are left to navigate and survive the hostile environment to reach their rendezvous point and report to the rest of the world what they have found.
To delve into the performances of this particular creature feature is to highlight how a plethora of talent can feel wasted on thin, one-dimensional writing, and while there are brief flashes of brilliance, more often than not they’re trivial adornments to the grander conflict between Kong and the monsters lurking below. There’s attempts to make us invest in the likes of Hiddleston’s Conrad and Larson’s Weaver as protagonists and heroes, but we only linger with them long enough for each to gaze in awe and wonder at each new sight, and also to slip in minute pieces of backstory about cigarette lighters and other trinkets that are almost instantaneously forgettable. Hiddleston and Larson give significant weight to many moments, but they almost feel unearned by the film itself, and their movie star charm isn’t enough to overcome the lack of real character. Run through the whole cast and it feels like a missed opportunity and too much of a good thing at the same time. John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Shea Whigham, ME, EARL, AND THE DYING GIRL breakout Thomas Mann, and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON lead players Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell all attempt to give things an element of human nuance and depth, but to no avail. The only individual who comes shining through it all is John C. Reilly as a deranged man out of time trapped on the island, the older version of the WWII pilot from the prologue sequence. His is a wacko, batshit performance that breaks free of any sort of trappings to become something that’s wildly and wonderfully indefinable, at turns hilariously at home in the absurd premise yet also finding opportunities to touch delicately on some emotional truths. Reilly is not tied down to anything here, and his liberated and corybantic interpretation is a gift to a film in desperate need of a real human being.
If the human aspects provide nothing really worth writing home about, the virtues live primarily in a heavily applied style and good old filmmaking fun. The Vietnam War era setting may seem like biting off more than the film can chew, but it still provides a dazzling new lens through which to view a legendary and iconic monkey. With thumping beats from the likes of CCR, Jefferson Airplane, and The Stooges accompanied by ample doses of napalm, grenades, and machine gun fire, it isn’t a stretch to determine where Vogt-Roberts’ influences lie. Yet everything is handled with such confidence and a deft hand that it’s almost impossible to not simply enjoy the hell out of it. One of the greatest sequences in films so far this year has to be the explorers’ first contact with Kong, kicked off by a projectile tree literally impaling a flying helicopter just before they all glimpse his massive form. As hell breaks loose, streams of bullets are fired, and helicopters and ape fists careen into one another, but Vogt-Roberts never loses his unique eye for showcasing the action and story. It’s positively thrilling, thanks in part to the camerawork of Larry Fong whose compositions are stunningly beautiful and quite noteworthy for something that mostly amounts to large action set pieces. Of course, it should be mentioned Fong’s most frequent collaborations are with Zack Snyder, though here he benefits from having the actual landscapes of Vietnam to work with and not simply a green screen. There’s even a delightful bit that parallels Fong’s work on 300, as Hiddleston slices and dices bird-like creatures with a katana through swirling toxic green gas. That image may be the most accurate representation of what’s so much fun about this popcorn flick: it’s non-sensical, ridiculously dumb, but it looks marvelous, and if you adjust your expectations, it’s an exciting and unique, if empty, ride.
In all honesty, no one was particularly asking for another telling of the story of the tragic and gargantuan primate, or really expecting any level of cinematic greatness for such a project, and in that sense, KONG: SKULL ISLAND definitely comes out ahead as being far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Vogt-Roberts heaps buckets upon buckets of stylistic flourishes on top of a thin script with such confidence that you can’t help but feel he enjoyed creating it just as much you have watching it, if not more. But that’s not to say the excessive delights wash away what’s lacking, because it’s still frustrating how much feels missing or underdeveloped in this rumble in the jungle. The examinations of violence, PTSD, cultural conflict, and confusion and paranoia don’t feel so much out of place as they do undercooked and ham-fisted. There’s a great deal of potential lying within the story, something akin to the mistrustful ensemble dynamic of sci-fi classics like ALIEN or THE THING that spoke to the fears of their time, but here it’s not condensed or focused enough to cash in on that formula. Perhaps part of it is the numerous writing credits, or Legendary’s desire to build a “MonsterVerse” that hold it back from achieving something resembling greatness, a victim of too many ideas and too many pieces mashed into one. I’d be curious what would’ve resulted if it had been allowed to exist on its own, and Vogt-Roberts had trimmed the fat to make something lean but equally as outrageous, but what we’re left with is an imperfect, monstrous mess. Still, I can’t think of a more sublime and fabulous mess that I would love to watch over and over again, still baffled by its unwarranted and unexpected delights.
Re-watch rating: B-
(The Re-watch is a series of posts dedicated to revisiting previously viewed films and analyzing the ways they change, alter and sometimes grow upon repeated viewings and further reflection)