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One would think that a film which can attract a critically acclaimed cast that includes Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly would deliver a gripping retelling of the the fantastical battle of ‘man vs beast’ that is King Kong. But it seems that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was not yet ready for his first big-budget feature. The estimated $190 million dollar production seems to have been so focused upon the creation of magnificent creatures and forgotten cultures, it forgot about it’s central characters and their relationships that were supposed to hold the mythical events of this blockbuster together. This is no fault of the incredible acting talent involved (which includes Hiddleston and Larson, who are arguably some of the best of their generation) but rather the lack of material for them to engage with. Even with the expectations for future films (wait for the epilogue after the credits, and you’ll see what I’m talking about), the film should have stood up by itself, but simply does not. Imbued with psychedelic colors, fantastical creatures, and enhanced with ’70s rock music, the adventure is a lot of fun, the characters make some funny jokes and the creatures are terrifying, but in the end, the film fails to find a balance between a period piece and a modern blockbuster. By the time John Goodman’s character reveals to Samuel L Jackson halfway through the movie, “Monsters are real,” Jackson’s response completely encapsulates the audience reaction, stating simply “No shit.”
Vogt-Roberts, known for his 2013 Sundance hit The Kings of Summer, struggles to truly re-imagine the great ape. Setting the film in an uncharted Pacific island does add quite a lot visually, with the orange sunlight constantly reflecting through mountains of green, and setting the film in 1970s post-Vietnam adds both political and social interest. Admittedly far more creative than his predecessors, the film still feels like King Kong meets Apocalypse Now, and not an entirely new creation. Although the setting (both time and place) adds interest, it doesn’t have enough mystery. From the opening scene (which takes places thirty years prior to the film’s setting) where you see Kong’s giant hand reach up over a cliff, it feels as though Vogt-Roberts missed his chance to have a truly memorable reveal of this classic movie character. By merely holding off, the mystery could have been maintained for more than a measly few minutes. The creature of Kong itself is impressive, with British actor Toby Kebbell, who via motion capture technology portrays Kong (and also has a supporting role as southern army lieutenant Jack Chapman). Kebbell’s quiet, yet strong presence gives a new depth to Kong. The supporting monsters themselves are also a pleasant surprise, with two-legged reptiles deemed “skull crawlers” being the most fascinating. And the undiscovered human settlement, populated by native Asian-like residents who are covered in bright painted art, should have played a more pivotal role (although I’m sure it will come into play in future films).
For those coming to see British heartthrob Tom Hiddleston, you will get your fair dose. With Hiddleston’s character Captain James Conrad draped over the banister of a ship deck, or gazing from a across a smoky bar, or running with a sword in slow-motion, you will certainly get enough of those blue eyes. But coming from someone who loves the actors work, he seems miscast in this role, which requires more brawn than intelligence and charm he offers. The relationship between his character and with Larson’s also falls flat, with their focus being to much on the unfolding action, and not on learning more about each other. Even if the intention was to build a friendship, and nothing more, there conversations hardly engaged. When in the end, Hiddleston hugs Larson instead of kisses her, we may not be surprised (though it may have been homage to the original, it disappoints).
Truly, almost all the characters seem underdeveloped, simply spouting out dialogue that some times get laughs (and not always when its supposed to). The first 20 minutes of the film are completely wasted, consisting of the mission’s preparation, with characters constantly reiterating that there must be “more to the story” (which most may find obvious). Jackson as the military general turned villain is very clearly a way of the writers making an anti-war statement about military brainwashing, but Jackson’s performance does give the character more layers. John Goodman portrays a more muted character than his normal persona, playing Bill Randa, the businessman who spearheads the entire mission. Corey Hawkins, as geologist Houston Brooks, is an eager and sometimes awkward supporting character, but holds his own against the more outwardly machismo characters. The soldiers supplement the intense moments with some humorous remarks, but mostly just serve as victims of the mighty island creatures. John C Reilly’s storyline, as shipwrecked veteran Hank Marlow, is the most riveting. With years of experience on the island, and a family unaware he has been alive for 30 years, his character commands the most respect (not to mention Reilly has the most entertaining lines).
For women audience members, don’t look for incredible role models in the characters portrayed by Brie Larson and Jing Tian. Unfortunately, you might be disappointed. Although Larson is one of the biggest female American actresses, and Tian is one of the biggest Chinese actresses, the two seem to just be thrown in with no true purpose to the expedition. Larson’s character, a photographer named Mason Weaver, although a member of the expedition, contributes little. This is even more so in the case of Tian’s character as biologist San. That being said, Vogt-Roberts does give us a few nice moments between Kong and Ms. Weaver, updating the ‘damsel in distress’ to a a professional women trying to defend herself against gigantic prehistoric creatures.
But with all that being said, the visual effects and sound mixing are well worth the experience. The multi-colored skies, the intricate creatures, and the foreign jungle sounds, truly do take you to a different world. Despite this, there may be too much special effects. Other reviewers have commented on how there wasn’t enough Kong (which is very much true), but it was really the character of Kong that was missing, not the action sequences involving Kong. Although the film does offer a few few “human” moments between Kong and the people, they are not enough. And as far as Kong and the other creatures, you almost see too much of them. Anyone who understands film knows the old adage “show, don’t tell.” But I think Kong: Skull Island could actually have done less showing. What is scarier is the unseen threats, not the fully-visible CGI creatures. Had there been more tightly-framed shots, with less wide shots that allow the audience to see everything, the film would have, ironically, not only been much impactful, but also much cheaper.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
So… is Kong: Skull Island worth your time? What is does provide is an opportunity you to spend two hours watching some of your favorite actors, who are engaged in some great VFX action sequences. If you’re looking for an action-packed, war-themed, VFX spectacle, with some crazy monsters, than Kong certainly delivers. If you’re looking for something more, (i.e. deeper themes and multi-dimensional characters) than Kong: Skull Island is not going to fulfill your expectations.