Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, Story by John Gatins
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman
As you may or may not know, I cannot stop gushing love for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. It is a monster movie of the same caliber as Gojira or the original King Kong, even if whole swaths of the modern moviegoing audience cannot recognize that. With Kong: Skull Island, Legendary Pictures hopes to springboard a new “Monsterverse,” modeled on Toho’s old cinematic series and aimed to compete with Marvel’s MCU. And I’ll just get this right off the bat: it has a lot more in common, quality-wise, with the former.
A diverse team of scientists, soldiers and adventurers (Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson) unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, spurred on by the eccentric and desperate Dr. Randa (John Goodman). After their research mission is violently ended by the King of Skull Island, the gigantic ape known as Kong, they must fight to escape a primal Eden in which humanity does not belong. While one group seeks escape alongside a World War II survivor (John C. Reilly), the military escort, led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) seeks vengeance, and the ultimate battle between man and nature is ignited.
Maybe I should have tempered my expectations going in; weeks of hearing comparisons to Apocalypse Now and allusions to “deep thematic ties to the Vietnam War” really set my sights high with this one. While there are high ambitions and some creative ideas at work in Skull Island, many of them are unfortunately wasted. I think giving this project to sophomore director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was a mistake; he seems to settle for music video editing and lackluster performances when someone like Edwards would have definitely pushed for more.
One immediate problem with the whole affair are the characters: this ensemble cast should have knocked Godzilla‘s out of the park, but only two seem to live up to any expectations: John Goodman’s bitter take on the Denham archetype Bill Randa, and John C. Reilly’s lovably-zany Marlow, who’s as satirical a riff on Heart of Darkness as good taste will allow. Everyone else is just kind of….there. The air cavalry is about as stereotypically gung-ho as you can get, led by Sam Jackson’s pseudo-Ahab hardass. And in what must be the final insult to such a potential awesome time, Hiddleston and Academy Award-winner Brie Larson never seem to break out of a very obvious boredom with the lazy script. I kid you not, two conversations that they have alone are set up like a five-year-old playing with broken action figures, and end the same way–uselessly.
Even Kong doesn’t survive this severe lack of focus on character: despite getting the grab on the first big action sequence only 35 minutes in (no doubt a response to audience complaints on the Big G’s lack of screen time), he sadly isn’t explored outside a ton of exposition by Marlowe. He has a few moments of emotion here and there, including one amusing fight with a giant octopus that ends in a very tasty meal, but in the end I didn’t feel much connection to the big guy at all, which is rather troublesome: not only is he supposed to be a natural guardian in the way Godzilla was previously, that is Kong’s forte–making the audience cry. That simply doesn’t happen here.
The other big failing Skull Island wrestles with is the relative mediocrity of the photography on display. Opening on the beach during 1944, a P-51 crashes ashore, and proceeds to look like its 5 feet long. I don’t know what caused this bizarre depth of field problem, considering I know a miniature wasn’t used, but mistakes like this continue to pop up every now and then. The rest of the film utilizes the picturesque grass fields and dense jungles of Vietnam, but barely ever opens up to let us realize the scope. And God forbid the soldiers pop on another rock song into the record player, because then the editor decides we need to keep beat with the drummer at the cost of whizzing by even more big and beautiful sights.
Don’t take this to mean that I hate the film; I’m sure once I’m done bitching, I’ll soften enough to go pick up the blu-ray. Many of the old Toho films and American monster cinema of the ’50s had similar problems, and I still adore them. Indeed, I was rather tickled plenty of times to see so many kaiju and Kong references stuffed into one film, and the two climactic beats of the final act were quite thrilling indeed. Skull Island is definitely enough for a fun monster mash, and maybe that’s enough for now. I just know that I’m happy Vogt-Roberts is not helming Godzilla 2.