Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

Bigger is necessarily better in this rather one-dimensional reboot of King Kong

Kong: Skull Island
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
With Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

The remakes, reboots and sequels continue, and it is hard to keep up. The latest effort is Kong: Skull Island, taking the King Kong story into the Vietnam War era. The film is connected to the 2014 remake of Godzilla by US-Chinese film group Legendary Entertainment, and not linked to the 2005 remake of King Kong.

Except for the presence of the giant ape Kong on a mist shrouded island the film bears very little resemblance to previous versions.

In 1973, new satellite images show an unknown island in the Pacific. Bill Randa (played by John Goodman) has been harassing US government officials for years hoping to get backing to look into his crackpot theories that monsters still roam the earth. He is associated with Monarch, a secret government agency. Goodman is always reliable. He manages to seem like a conspiracy crackpot and someone who has hit onto an unpopular truth at the same time.

Randa and his sidekicks from Monarch finally gets their chance as the US announces it is pulling out of the Vietnam War and some military helicopter pilots are looking for a last mission before they go home.

The pilots are not told the truth, and what was supposed to have been a map-making mission quickly spins out of control. Instead of a simple walk in the jungle, there is a pitched battle that tries to evoke the cinematic style of Apocalypse Now with a bit of Platoon and Deer Hunter thrown in.

Much of the rest of the film is battles with various monsters on the secret island, and conflicts among the surviving soldiers and scientists. A female photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), has tagged along to partially fill the Fay Wray role and provide a romantic plot line. She shows a bit of backbone in a few scenes and is slightly more than a damsel in distress, but one is left to wonder at the logic of taking a civilian photographer along on a secret government mission.

A major drawback in Kong: Skull Island is the rather poor character development. Samuel L. Jackson as US Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard gives a one-note performance as an insanely obsessed control freak bent on revenge. It is a performance one would expect in a direct-to-video film in a discount bin. The script left him little choice though. The rest of the soldiers also are little more than stick figures.

Tom Hiddleston as soldier of fortune James Conrad at least is allowed to make some rational decisions and be the voice of reason. Character actor John C. Reilly in a surprise role also manages to add a bit of depth to his character.

Skull Island has a native population, and in previous versions of the film this has been a bit problematic. The classic 1933 version is a bit cringe worthy in this regard, and the 1976 version with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange is just marginally better. This time, the filmmakers at least try to avoid the worst stereotypes in creating a fictional village of primitive islanders.

The bulk of the film is CGI monsters, and they are competently done but Kong is just not believable, and that is also a big drawback. In the 1933 film he was about 8 meters, though it varies from scene to scene, and studio publicity said he was 50 feet (15 meters). He grew to a bit over 15 meters for the 1976 version, and went back down to 8 meters for the 2005 remake.

In Kong: Skull Island, he has mushroomed to a whopping 108 meters tall, so big that he can crush a flying helicopter in one hand. The tallest building in Prague, the City Tower, is 109 meters.

Basic science for warm-blooded mammals limits their overall size to much smaller than the largest dinosaurs. Other questions like what he eats are sidestepped a bit. But setting science aside, the size is just not believable and creates another drawback.

The 2005 and 1933 versions also gave much more personality to Kong. Even the much underrated 1976 version gave Kong a soft side. The new Kong, like the other characters, is somewhat underdeveloped. This Kong shows rage and anger, but not much else.

The 2005 version won three Oscars in technical categories and 1976 versions gained a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects. The 1933 version was made before there was an Oscar for visual effects. The new version has competent use of CGI, but doesn't push the envelope compared to what you can see in several of the current comic book franchises and other CGI-heavy films.

Kong: Skull Island is good, but it misses out on being great by a wide margin. The film company Legendary is hoping to create a large “MonsterVerse” of fantastic creatures gathering together Kong and characters from Japanese films including Godzilla into something like the successful Marvel series. The Marvel films work due to sharp characters, a blend of action and humor, clever writing and a sense of vision. Legendary is going to have to step up its game if wants to compete.

Stay through the credits for an important final scene that hints at where the project is going.

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