There is at least one shot, moment or scene available in Kong: Skull Island to cogently combat any criticism I have for it. On paper, the film is a slam dunk. All the elements are present, not just in theory but occasionally up there on the screen. And yet I stand before you, someone more open than most to let this fun monster movie into my heart, reporting that Kong: Skull Island bounced right off me.
It has a great cast, looks beautiful, utilizes the novel premise of applying an Apocalypse Now affectation to a giant monster movie and has occasionally cool action. But this isn’t the super cool monster movie those elements would indicate. I never thought it was all that fun, nor did it offer much in the way of tension. It has a ton of characters, each with their own defined personality. But save for one, nothing really happens with them. They either die or get off the island and it doesn’t matter much either way. Skull Island isn’t great like Jurassic Park or a misfire like The Lost World. It’s kind of just there, like Jurassic Park 3.
John Goodman plays a government stooge working for Godzilla’s Monarch branch who gets the go ahead to bring a military helicopter crew fresh from not winning Vietnam to help him survey the recently discovered and still secret Skull Island. Along the way, he picks up Tracker action figure Tom Hiddleston and Photographer action figure Brie Larson. They fly their helicopters onto the island and immediately get knocked out of the sky by King Kong. Scattered and with only three days to reach a far away evacuation point, some of them go on an exposition mission with John C. Reilly while the others go on an Ahab vs The White Whale mission with Samuel L. Jackson.
Like Godzilla, this Kong is a lonely ancient protector figure, though he’s a bit more harried and sad. Kong’s been around a while and can’t even have a drink of water without some fool trying to take him out. He also looks amazing. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t interested in offering us a nature-approved ape. Kong is treated as a God, a decidedly bipedal behemoth who fights with somewhat human intelligence.
Kong’s primary foe, aside from pesky gnat Samuel L. Jackson, is a species of monster known in the movie as Skull Crawlers, who act sort of as raptors to Kong’s T-Rex. They live under the surface, waiting to come out and presumably take over the world but held back by Kong, who stalks around patrolling the island for them. Like Godzilla’s Mutos, they aren’t interesting in and of themselves but gain a bit more novelty due to their adversarial relationship to Kong.
So despite knocking half the cast out of the sky early in the film, Kong is a good guy. And in fact, most of Skull Island is pretty decent. Rather than the nightmarish house of horrors portrayed in past versions (Peter Jackson’s ghoulishly mischievous take in particular), the “monsters” on Skull Island are just animals doing their animal thing. A giant spider might step on you and ruin your birthday, but that doesn’t mean it’s evil. That’s just your fault for being small, twerp.
But a feeling of dissatisfaction permeates the movie. Kong: Skull Island feels like a film in fast-forward, never stopping long enough to let us really get settled into this world. I want awe and scope from my giant monster movies. Gareth Edward’s excelled at this with Godzilla - much, it should be noted, to some viewers’ dismay. If Edwards took a Spielberg approach to visualizing these monsters, Vogt-Roberts comes more from the Michael Bay camp, which some people will undoubtedly love. Most shots of Kong feel overly staged to be huge and/or iconic, but there are so many of these big money shots that they begin to act as a screen between the viewer and the world presented. Vogt-Roberts’ film is beautiful and frequently cool, but might provide too much of a good thing.
The film’s greatest special effect, however, is just an actor. John C Reilly absolutely owns this movie as a WWII soldier who’s been stuck on the island for decades, waiting to someday go home. Reilly’s aw shucks charm is on full display here, giving him ample opportunities to be both tragic and hilarious, often at the same time. The complications of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in this film are known but not felt. With Reilly, you feel everything. That’s great, but he’s also the only character who gets such treatment. He’s a human surrounded by dolls.
I love a fun monster movie, but the pleasures of Kong: Skull Island are just too surface-level to raise much excitement. It’ll be a perfect movie to watch for the first time a year from now when everyone’s already forgotten about it. But as the first King Kong movie to come out in twelve years, it’s a bit of a letdown.