The original 1933 “King Kong” is one of the earliest films to ever truly spark my imagination. It’s interesting because I hadn’t seen the full film until I was a bit older, but as a kid (and still am) I was a massive “Jurassic Park” fan. On the DVD of “Jurassic Park” there was a brilliant “Making of” documentary that featured influences and technologic breakthroughs that led to Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster masterpiece. One of the clips in the doc was sequences of King Kong’s fight with the T-Rex. It didn’t matter that it was “old effects” I was still blown away by it. Ever since then (and especially after I saw the film in its entirety) I always considered myself to be a big “King Kong” fan. I was an even bigger fan after I saw the 2005 Peter Jackson remake (which up until now I just assumed everyone enjoyed as well).
I share this long and boring story (that doesn’t mean much except to myself) to really put emphasis on how badly I wanted to love this movie (or at the very least like). “Kong” is a property that has such a wonderful sense of awe and adventure (and tragedy) that I think it is a character that we should revisit every once in a while. It’s even more imperative that this movie works so Warner Brothers can set up their monsters’ universe and remake “King Kong vs Godzilla” (which the possibility of that beyond excites me). “Kong: Skull Island” does work in establishing a new version of the King Kong character and establishes an interesting mythology for monsters to exist in. As a film, though, I was left sorely disappointed. I liked it better than the 1976 version but with its flat characters, clunky storytelling, and lack of presence of Kong himself I left with a sour taste in my mouth.
The story of “Kong” isn’t the biggest concern when it comes down to it. All the screenwriters need is to find a way to get people onto the island with the giant ape. In this version, we no longer have a film crew looking to make a feature film instead we have a government department looking to survey a nearly discovered island that harbors a dark secret and giant ape that is king named Kong.
The story itself I think functions just fine on its own. Or at least the very basic premise does. Where the movie begins to falter is with the characters. There are far too many damn characters. The studio could have saved some money if they slashed the cast of big name talents in half. With so many characters very few of them get time to be fleshed out or be relevant enough to care. I’ve seen some argue online that it doesn’t matter if the characters are multidimensional, we’re here for the monster action, not a character piece. Yes, I would normally agree with that. Monster movies can sacrifice some character development and just succeed on a style and entertainment side alone. However, nearly all of the story and action here revolves around our large cast of characters. It feels very character centered but the problem is none of them are very interesting at all. It’s hard to get invested in the movie when the characters are paper thin and don’t move us much in emotion or at the very least excitement. Maybe Samuel Jackson’s character was semi-interesting but that’s about it. I don’t think this movie knew what to focus on.
That includes Kong himself. King Kong is the title character, the main star, the reason we are all in the theater. Yet he isn’t really in the movie that much. The movie proceeding this, Gareth Edwards’s “Godzilla”, didn’t have a lot of the main character in that movie as well. However, what Edwards did do was (even when he wasn’t on screen) give Godzilla a presence. We knew he was there, was coming and was going to be imposing. When he finally did appear on screen the payoff was so satisfying. Here King Kong is introduced really early on but he doesn’t feel very threatening nor have much presence. He walks around the island in a sort causal manner but I didn’t feel the awe. He disappears for large chunks of the movie and while he should never leave my mind I sort of just forgot about him for a bit. What’s interesting is never has Kong been so large before but leave so little impact.
What’s more disappointing I felt all the monster action was serviceable. None of the action sequences are really memorable or unique. There are quite a few scenes of action but a lot of them are sort of just there and just happen. There isn’t much tension or buildup or payoff, the scene happens and that’s about it (that also might have something to do with the characters). The final showdown is largely disappointing. I found myself going, wait that’s it? The movie builds up “The Skull Crushers” to be a big menacing creature but Kong handles them pretty easily.
I feel I have been largely negative in this review thus far so let me end with the positives of this movie. The action may not be especially memorable but they are (as said above) serviceable; they are fine for what they are and could leave you entertained. The effects are for the most part pretty well done. There is some noticeable green screen, overuse of digital effects and filters but there is no denying the amount of care that went into crafting Kong and the creatures of Skull Island. The actors are all good as well. No one is winning any Oscars for this movie (and not that they need too) but they all put in fine work. There weren’t any especially bad performances. I did think Brie Larson’s performance was a bit off but nothing too distracting.
I think this movie was constructed with political and social allegory in mind especially with Vietnam, the counter culture and returning soldiers serve as a backdrop to the film. To me, that’s a very interesting angle to take the franchise. The reason I think Sam Jackson’s characters works the best is because we get his backstory and it feeds into those themes. Tom Hiddleston character should have served as the counterweight to Jackson’s. There isn’t anything overt in the movie (with the exception of a very on the nose line from John Goodman’s character that would only make sense to our modern ears). It would have been interesting if the filmmakers decided to play up those themes a bit more.
While I’ve been focusing a lot on why I don’t think this movie works (that stems from my disappointment from the film) I don’t think this a bad film. This is a serviceable entry to introduce Kong to a new audience and a new series (the after credits scene is amazing by the way). It’s not good, not bad, I didn’t feel bored during the meager 118 running time but I didn’t think there were many things that really stood out either (aside from its new interesting mythology). This movie gets the job done of having a standalone King Kong film but I think Kong deserves a bit more than that. This movie has a slew of issues that get in the way that at the very least should be a very entertaining film.