The three things you need to know before seeing Kong: Skull Island are that (a) the 3D cinematography really is astonishingly thrilling to watch, (b) your monster enemy’s monster enemy is your monster friend, and (c) sadly none of this entirely makes up for the rest of the movie.
“I think he’s losing it!” says tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) about the increasingly crazy-eyed Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) three-quarters of the way through Kong: Skull Island, and to be honest that could equally well refer to the film itself.
Neither a brilliantly mad and bad B movie, nor an earth-shattering class A blockbuster, it tends to take on the worst bits of both so it is both bloated and silly.
It’s fun, but not fun enough and what should be an exciting battle between monsters and people gets way too complicated and turns into out-of-town humans against Kong against other scary giant monsters against local tribe with some half baked anti-war / who owns the planet moralising thrown in for good measure.
Bill Randa (John Goodman) works for a secret USA government organisation called MONARCH, which is engaged in Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms Research, and should therefore surely be called MUTOR. MONARCH is “a place where myth and science meet” which sounds like all of the best sci fi films but sadly this isn’t it. Randa has discovered an undiscovered island, and from the satellite images and a folkloric tradition of lost ships, it is apparently “the land where God did not finish Creation”.
With the Vietnam War coming to a close, there are American forces – led by Colonel Packard – available to help Randa and his scientific team get to and map the island, though first they have to hire a tracker (Conrad, who they find beating up locals in a Vietnam bar, though he is to his credit entirely honest about the likelihood of any of them getting back alive), and Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson, who is, she tells us, “an ANTI-war photographer”, and yes well I’m sure most of them are.
Luckily once the humans get to Skull Island the action starts pretty quickly and we see Kong. He’s gargantuan – in terms of the look, the budget is well spent. He’s also mightily pissed off at these invaders, as most of his time is already accounted for, fighting off other threats. With the expedition attacked and all but destroyed, the survivors have to first find each other, and then cross the hazardous island, battling giant creatures along the way, to get to their pre-agreed rendezvous on the coast in a few days.
They also meet Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), a friendly if slightly mad American pilot who crashlanded on the island back in 1944 and has been stuck there ever since. He is useful for explaining who Kong is and what he does: “Kong is a pretty good king” says Marlow: “the devils live below us”.
The CGI, particularly in 3D, is genuinely impressive. There’s a terrific scene where Kong is attacked by a giant octopus and carries on eating the tentacles as it continues to slither around his neck and body, which from a cinematic if not an etiquette point of view is rather a joy to watch.
I also loved it when the helicopters were flying in towards the screen over the audience’s heads, or so it seems, and the misty/smoky atmosphere during a humans v monsters battle in a giants’ graveyard is very effective as the humans are doubly disadvantaged. Larson gets to replay an updated version of one of the most iconic scenes on film too.
What annoyed me most was the lack of logic. Packard is far and away the most interesting character, with the most potential. One brief look into his box of medals after withdrawal from Vietnam has been announced, along with his comment to himself “all this for what?”, tells us instantly that without the rules and structure of war he is a lost soul. He needs a war and so he tries to create one. But despite this, even as he becomes increasingly unhinged on the island and his desire for revenge becomes personal, his reasoning doesn’t add up. And neither do the actions of the men in supporting him, even if he is a colonel.
Yes he wants to avenge his dead colleagues (“their deaths will not go unanswered” he says, a sentiment used so often in films I’ve started saying it myself whenever I find a couple of evicerated mice next to our guilty-looking cat) but they are in Kong’s domain. And even when it is explained to him that Kong is actually all that stands between the indigenous tribespeople and oblivion because of there other, scarier monsters, he still wants to kill Kong and then he’s going to kill the scarier monsters too.
The cast is huge and towards the end there are so many still alive it felt a bit like the last night of TV’s Big Brother when they have to get rid of loads of people in the last 20 minutes before the winner emerges victorious. The sheer numbers wandering about on the island mean that apart from Packard, no one really has much of a character. Even Conrad has to give his entire back story in some expositionary lines and a couple of rather ponderous quotes about life.
Also rather wasted are Houston Brooks, a geologist from Yale (Corey Hawkins), and San Lin (Jing Tian) who has almost nothing to add but is supposed to be a biologist. She and Brooks spend most of their time together and could have had an interesting friendship. Weaver comments a lot on the badness of war, takes several photos then occasionally does something physically impressive, as if someone kept remembering no one wants to see, or play, women wafting around waiting to be rescued any more.
I will forgive almost anything for a good joke but while there are some funny lines, the humour is half-baked. Hank has a go but the lack of response from his co stars means his gags thud to the ground like Kong’s foot as the giant ape stomps off back to his lair.
Kong: Skull Island is quite fun, though it’s too long and and often silly. It also feels derivative (the island and its enormous inhabitants look like leftovers from a Jurassic Park lab that don’t make the grade, and some of the action sequences seem to be channelling Jurassic World), and it’s a frustrating experience watching it – as it could have been so much more everything, including so much more fun.
Watch the trailer for Kong: Skull Island: