Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island starts off like any other big dumb monster film, aping the traditional formula from the genre of spectacular visual effects coupled with mediocre clichéd storytelling. The tale begins in 1944 when an American WWII fighter pilot finds himself stranded on an island in the South Pacific. Here, he discovers the film’s titular star, Kong (Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell) himself, who goes bananas at the sight of intruders.
Kong: Skull Island then flashes forward to 1973, a period where American soldiers are still struggling with the sentiments of the loss of the Vietnam War. Here, we learn that a team of specialists are being gathered for a top-secret mission to a mysterious place called ‘Skull Island,’ and we are introduced to the sort of star-powered ensemble cast that usually graces these big-budget monster films.
This includes John Goodman (William “Bill” Randa) as a government official leading the expedition who is cryptic about the mission, Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad) as a British ex-SAS Captain hired for his tracking skills, Brie Larson (Mason Weaver) as a war photojournalist who is anti-violence, and Samuel L. Jackson (Preston Packard) as a United States Army Lieutenant Colonel who leads the Sky Devils helicopter squadron and is in charge of the group’s safety. There are other instantly recognisable actors as well, including the always lovable John C. Reilly (Hank Marlow) as the stranded WWII fighter pilot.
Kong: Skull Island could have been more believable in terms of subject matter
The performances are fairly good. Tom Hiddleston is both resourceful and heroic, and has an incredible action sequence where he uses a katana blade while surrounded by poisonous gas to kill monsters as he rescues a soldier. Brie Larson and John C. Reilly act as the heart and soul of the film, helping create compassion not only for Kong, but the island itself, grounding the narrative well in the process. But the biggest misstep of Kong: Skull Island is Samuel L. Jackson.
Perhaps Kong: Skull Island wished to play on the rising anti-military sentiment across the world, but the soldiers in the film are one-dimensional and a bit stupid. It isn’t very convincing when Packard and his team bomb the island and then attack Kong needlessly. It’s even less convincing when Packard can’t accept that he’s outmatched and goes after Kong, putting at risk his remaining men as well as his charges. Kong: Skull Island could have played more on how the Vietnam War defeat drove Packard insane to make matters more believable. Moreover, Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as a crazed soldier isn’t entirely convincing either.
These issues do hold the film back, but the narrative improves when the other characters start to respect their environment and Marlow adds some amusing tongue-in-cheek humour. We also get to meet the mysterious natives of the island, who seem strangely detached from Marlow considering that he spent nearly 30 years with them.
The second half of Kong: Skull Island is when the special effects move from strength to strength, with fantastic 3D visuals, gorgeous cinematography, and a deeper characterisation of Kong that helps us empathise with the monster. Kong: Skull Island learns its lesson from the last Godzilla film by giving us plenty of entertaining giant monster fights. These sensational earth-shaking battles do make the bumpy trip to Kong: Skull Island worthwhile, but only just.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
Published in Dawn, ICON, April 16th, 2017