King Kong has always been about spectacle. The 1933 original isn’t great because of it’s storytelling. This isn’t to say the storytelling isn’t great, it’s a tight and effective thriller. But that’s not the point of the film. The story works because it is in service to the astounding visual effects. It was about looking at something that doesn’t exist. About seeing a massive creature, moving, living, interacting with people, dwarfed in his shadow. Through the decades this has been the model for Kong films. To create a compelling narrative that not only justifies, but lifts up the special effects of the day. In 1933 it was stop motion animation and state of the art compositing done with rear screen projection. The 1976 film was mostly a step backwards with it’s man-in-a-monkey-suit approach. However Kong’s animatronic face, able to perform a wide range of facial expressions in real time, was cutting edge. In 2005, hot off Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson used CGI to paint a vivid, stylized 1930s and employed motion capture to bring Kong to life.
Not quite enough time has passed for Kong: Skull Island to represent a new era of visual effects. It plays with the same basic tools that Jackson used in 2005. It’s primary departure is the oddball choice to set the film in 1973 with a Vietnam War backdrop, and the decision to tell a new story, not adapt the original. These two elements were what excited me about the film. But they didn’t matter. Because the movie was terrible.
Kong: Skull Island is about a group of great actors who, for cliche and over-explained reasons, end up on a boat with a bunch of okay actors, to check out an uncharted island. John Goodman plays the scientist leading the expedition. He enlists the help of Tom Hiddleston, who plays a “tracker.” Which I thought had something to do with finding animals, but apparently it means being good at weapons and fighting stuff. Samuel L Jackson is a war guy who loves war so much. Though the Vietnam War has just ended he volunteers his troupe of okay actors to join the dangerous mission to Skull Island, because, ya know, he just can’t get enough war. Brie Larson is an “anti-war photographer” who invites herself to the party to get some sweet pics. There are probably a dozen other characters, each with one or two vaguely defined characteristics. Earle Cole (played by Shea Whigham) was a character I wasn’t aware existed until he made the unnecessary decision to ceremoniously sacrifice himself. It is an amazingly hilarious scene. Despite the importance the filmmakers imbue in this moment, his sacrifice is utterly meaningless both emotionally for the audience and practically for the characters. (SPOILER He runs at the monster with explosives, the monster swats him away and he explodes himself, alone, doing no damage to the enemy, and effectively doing nothing to help the protagonists) This scene is indicative of the whole film. It thinks it’s epic, it tells the audience that what you’re seeing is spectacular, but who are these people? What are they doing? And why?
Samuel L Jackson wants to kill Kong at all costs, because, like I mentioned, he loves war. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson become passionate about saving Kong. Because good actor John C Reilly (a goofy castaway they find on the island, who exists to explain stuff) explains to them that Kong is good. Within the premise the film sets up, neither of these agendas make sense. All the characters should have the one express goal of getting off the island.
There are a few moments that effectively wow in depicting Kong’s scale. He is massive (the character is usually about 25 feet tall, this version is closer to 100 feet, insuring that he stands a chance against Godzilla in future films). Especially when he interacts with water, you can feel his sheer hugeness. However as soon as he starts fighting other big monsters, the sense of scale disappears.
Kong: Skull Island deserves a spot amongst films like King Kong Lives (1982), the belated sequel to the ‘76 film, about how Kong has been in a coma for 10 years and needs heart transplant, or Son of Kong, the sequel to the ‘33 original released just 9 months later. It deserves to be one of those bargain bin DVD you pick up and think, “They made this movie?”
I give Kong: Skull Island 2 out 10 ape turds.