“Kong: Skull Island” takes a classic cheesy monster movie premise (a group of explorers encountering a new land/frontier and having to fight its strange, vicious inhabitants in order to survive) and infuses it with the turbulence and “war-is-hell” mindset of the Vietnam War/ counter-culture movement era. The picture is set days after the war’s conclusion and tension is still in the air. There are anti- war protesters demonstrating in Washington and returning soldiers are still haunted by the horror’s they’ve experienced.
We observe this post war disillusionment most clearly in Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson), a bitter, slightly deranged, battle worn colonel who isn’t quite over the war. He’s been tasked with escorting a group of assorted travelers (made up of fellow soldiers, scientists, photographers and mercenaries) to a recently discovered Island in the Pacific wherein a variety of undiscovered monsters reside, including the titanic gorilla Kong.
This is an intriguing concept that sadly doesn’t hold together from a tonal standpoint and its execution is so sloppy and bland that you’re bored to tears when there isn’t a monster fight going on or a gnarly death scene.
The heavy-handed screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly talks down to us like we’re eleven years old. Everything-- plot, exposition and major themes, is explained and over explained to the point of tedium. The opening fifteen minutes, as expedition leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) rounds up his rag tag group of travelers, consists of one boring and contrived expository scene after another. For example, we first meet tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddelson) when he gets into a random scuffle with a switchblade wielding punk in the middle of a Bangkok bar while “While Rabbit” plays in the background. Later on, in a lame attempt to build anticipation and tension, the team has to fly through a CGI storm to reach the island.
Any interesting Vietnam/anti war subtext (the idea that war is hell, the idea that war can numb you to the point where seeing a giant gorilla isn’t very shocking, the idea that “the enemy” is a subjective construct) is violently pulled up to the surface during every scene through painfully clunky dialogue exchanges. Little is left for the audience to interpret or discover on their own. During one scene, in which war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Conrad talk about the negative effects of the conflict, Conrad says bluntly: “I suppose no man really comes home from the war.” Yeah. Cool. Thanks James.
Though it isn’t just the Vietnam/anti war stuff that’s heavy-handed. Any and all basic plot/expository developments are sounded out for the viewer. In a later scene, when the team encounters a ditch containing the bones of other giant apes, island inhabitant Hank Marlow (John C Reilly) remarks that they are “the remains of Kong’s parents.” Gee, Hank, I think the other characters (and the audience) can come to that conclusion without your interjection. And Weaver then saying that she’s seen “enough mass graves to recognize one” further emphasizes just how little nuance/subtlety there is in the storytelling. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts rarely just lets the images speak for themselves.
Speaking of characters, with the exception of Packard and Marlow, the explorers are entirely unmemorable-- they’re empty vessels used to explain plot points and themes to the audience…or get killed. Somehow the film manages to waste Brie Larson, Tom Hiddelson and John Goodman, an impressive and somewhat depressing feat. In fact, there are long stretches of time where Goodman is absent from the film, making you forget he even exists. It’s a sin for a movie to make you forget about John Goodman. For shame “Kong.” For shame.
Tonally, “Skull Island” is constantly at odds with itself as it tries to balance comedy and drama. While there’s nothing wrong with mixing drama with comedy, the tonal shifts here almost too abrupt and the comedy is played too broadly. Extremely silly screwball exchanges are immediately followed by intense, “war-is-hell, man!” moments. A stirring, unsettling homage to “Apocalypse Now” (this movie quotes excessively from Francis Ford Coppola’s film) is followed by a ludicrous, out of left field sequence in which a Samurai sword wielding gas mask wearing Tom Hiddelson charges in slow motion through a cloud of poisonous gas slicing and dicing some creepy-crawlies. Reilly, playing a bumbling and eccentric castaway, can be a hoot to watch but it feels like he’s in an entirely different movie. Most of the time the comedy grinds the action to a halt rather than propelling it forward. And ultimately, it undermines the Vietnam/anti war material—rendering it facile and cartoonish.
In the end, the only material that consistently works involves the monsters. It’s exciting and occasionally absurd--there are a number of memorable character deaths and man vs. creature (or creature vs. creature) fight scenes. You’ll be bored to tears one minute as characters take turns explaining the plot to each other and then suddenly someone will get carried off by a flock of winged reptiles or getting eaten by a giant lizard, making you perk up in delight.
But then the characters will go back to explaining the plot and you’ll wish you were the one who got carried off by winged reptiles. Much like “Jurassic World,” when the monsters are onscreen causing mayhem and killing people, “Kong: Skull Island” is watchable. Otherwise, the film is a powerful sleep aid.