Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
It’s 1973, and the United States is withdrawing from the war in Vietnam. Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) isn’t happy about what he sees as an admission of defeat and a mark of shame for his helicopter squadron. His crew is assigned as escorts for a science expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific, led by a government contractor, Bill Randa (John Goodman). British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) round out the crew. They arrive on the island and immediately being dropping explosive to map out the density and structure beneath, but they awaken something ancient and furious, Kong.
From the opening first act, Kong: Skull Island promises a lot of adventure and mystery. There’s a certain pace to the initial proceedings that is reminiscent of classic 1980s adventure films. We jump around the globe as our characters are quickly brought together, and the expedition is formed. The time frame of this iteration of King Kong works incredibly well. The space exploration boom is juxtaposed to Goodman’s Monarch program, investigation the corner of the Earth that have managed to remain hidden. The inevitable war between Packard and Kong works as a continuation of the Vietnam War, a conflict fought by soldiers who were misled and lacked an understanding of the macro-view.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes a huge leap from the small budget indie comedy-drama The Kings of Summer to this mega-budget blockbuster and does so with quite a bit of skill. He brings a visually pleasing look to Kong, bright, warm colors that provide a texture and atmosphere to the humid environs of Skull Island. In a time when so many films prefer to use a muted, washed out color palette, mistakenly inspired to only mimic Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, it feels so refreshing to have a movie that presents itself in bold hues.
The tricky part happens once everyone gets to the island and after the initial appearance of Kong. I applaud the filmmakers for not hiding the monster for half the film, instead of putting him front and center. We all know what is coming and the film knows there’s no point in hiding him. But after that first brutal encounter, the film starts to meander, and all that potential from the first act begins to wan in the latter half of the second act. By the time we reach the third and final act, it feels hard to keep the momentum up as the film devolves into the typical sort of ending battle.
The actors feel fairly squandered, and this is a phenomenal cast. Instead, it becomes a tug of war between the spectacle of the special effects and the human characters. Vogt-Roberts has proven he does an excellent job of bringing out real humanity in his players in The Kings of Summer, but he didn’t have them competing with a giant CGI gorilla. John C. Reilly shows up about half way through and provides both comedy relief and exposition in a role resembling Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. In fact, this whole take on the King Kong mythos is dripping with inspiration from The Heart of Darkness and the previously mentioned Vietnam-era film adaptation.
Kong: Skull Island is much better than the previous entry in this Monsterverse franchise, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. Edwards is sort of the opposite of Vogt-Roberts, dedicated to highlighting the spectacle and eschewing real human character development. While Kong may continually have that tension between humans and ape, I would prefer what we get of these human characters over the disconnectedness of Godzilla any day. Of course, a post-credits sequence attempts to link these two monsters for a future entry. Here’s hoping the following films can have the sense of wonder and excitement Skull Island’s opening act exuded and can carry it through to the closing of the picture.