It’s been 12 years since Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and more importantly almost 20 years since Mighty Joe Young, so we were way overdue for a movie starring a large ape, right? And who better than Legendary Pictures, the production company responsible for the 2014 Godzilla, to try and revive this monster movie luminary. Kong: Skull Island my fall victim to a lot of the same problems that plagued Godzilla, namely any character not named Godzilla, but it makes up for it’s large and lackluster human cast by providing one of the most visually stunning movies in recent memory.
Kong wastes no time in giving us a look at our titular character early on in the film but it does this in an interesting way, showing us the ape nearly 40 years before the remainder of the movie takes place. What’s on display at this point is the other portion of the title card: Skull Island, a dense and prehistoric jungle that houses a bevy of ecological wonders. Almost everything on this island is huge and wants to kill you but Kong truly is king. And as with every naturally beautiful thing in this world, it’s not long before humans seek it out to either claim or destroy it.
These humans, led by John Goodman’s Bill Randa, concoct a convoluted plan to get to the island in hopes of… well their motivations aren’t really clear. Randa comes across as much a scientist as a man who is convinced he’s only a weekend away from finding the Sasquatch. This is fine, but the motivation beyond just wanting to be proven correct doesn’t warrant the extent the he goes to for that validation. It does however bring him into contact with Tom Hiddleston’s James Conrad and Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard, two more characters that ultimately leave no impression and serve only to give this movie star power and more than a bit of hokey dialogue.
It should be clear at this point that I’m largely unimpressed with the actors in this movie because they can best all be summed up as overabundant. The cast is large and unwieldy, coming across as doing their versions of much more interesting characters from movies like Apocalypse Now or Platoon, and while I don’t disparage this movie for paying homage in stylistically impressive ways, the narrative that surrounds the imagery leaves a lot to be desired. John C Reilly’s man-out-of-time Hank Marlow is the only truly interesting character, and the scenes he’s in with this movie’s other headliners almost seem to wake them up and remind them to act. It’s just too bad that I still didn’t remember Reilly’s character’s name without the help of Wikipedia. Luckily this movie isn’t the adventures of James Conrad and friends on Skull Island.
Kong very appropriately is what makes this film enjoyable, but the world he inhabits and the creatures he fights are equally amazing. Skull Island is a lush, inhospitable landscape that Kong traverses with all the swagger befitting a 100 ft. gorilla. And although motion capture technology is still continuing to take jobs away from hard working apes, you may be shocked that Kong isn’t being played by Andy Serkis. Terry Notary, former Cirque du Soleil performer and movement coach for a ton of motion capture actors across various films brings Kong to life, portraying a lot more than just brute strength and savagery.
Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects division of Lucasfilm have once again knocked it out of the park, but I would be remiss if I didn’t compliment the overall cinematography alongside the CG tour de force. A lot of shots are definitely reminiscent of Vietnam films of the past but they almost comes across as campy considering that they’re flying choppers at a surprisingly large gorilla. The fact that so many beautiful shots in a film that’s just gushing with visual appeal also happen to have a gigantic, pissed of ape in them goes to show that this movie isn’t worried about taking itself serious. I alluded to Godzilla earlier, a movie that was great when it focused on its title characters and suffered everywhere else and Kong falls into those same issues. The difference here is Kong’s unwillingness, for better or worse, to try and tell a story with its characters that hints at some deeper meaning. I’d rather have a monster movie use its non-monster cast to guide the audience to the next set piece than have them attempt to build into a metaphor in a movie people are only really interested in because they might see a giant monkey step on people.
Kong: Skull Island doesn’t surprise; it’s a King Kong reboot meant to link to yet another shared movie universe, and it’s filled with forgettable performances by characters that ultimately don’t resonate. In all honesty this isn’t much more than a B-movie with a blockbuster budget. The fact that you’re just now seeing the name Brie Larson, a top billed actress who barely even registers as the beauty to Kong’s beast is indicative of how this film treats its cast and story. And all that just goes to show how cool the rest of this movie is, that in spite of the movie stars, Kong is still a really fun experience. The action sequences, the amazing computer generated world, and the fluid brutality on display in Kong is more than worth the price of admission and I know I’m often guilty of pigeonholing actors but if I had to give one actor his due, John C. Reilly plays hilarious if not mentally diminished characters better than anyone in the biz.