We’re not getting a new Transformers movie until this summer (when Transformers: The Last Knight hits theaters on June 23). Until then, however, Kong: Skull Island follows much of the same formula with insignificant human characters that move the narrative along to the next giant monster set piece and no real story to speak of, but special effects and action that look spectacular.
I realize that none of us are going to see a King Kong movie for the story. Peter Jackson arguably tried that with his 2005 King Kong, and it became a bloated, three-hour endurance test striving to be an epic tale of 1930s culture mixed with giant monster spectacle and a wagging finger toward turning a natural wonder into an entertainment attraction. We just want to see the big beasts fighting other gigantic monsters and smashing things that we previously considered formidable or even indestructible, such as skyscrapers or military helicopters.
One thing for which Kong: Skull Island deserves credit is that it’s not a remake, telling the story you’ve seen in three previous movies. There’s no director taking a cast and crew to a mysterious island to make a movie, only to find a gigantic ape who’s eventually captured, taken to New York City and faces a tragic end at the top of the Empire State Building. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) and three writers (including Max Borenstein, who wrote 2014’s Godzilla reboot) have a much different take on the fantasized of man vs. nature and nature vs. nature.
This story takes place after the end of the Vietnam War, a decision which mostly seems to have been made so that Vogt-Roberts could show everyone how much he loves Apocalypse Now. The influence of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic is all over this film, most especially from a visual standpoint. If you’ve seen the trailers, commercials and posters for the movie, you’ve noticed the desire to put the hulking silhouette of King Kong in front of massive sunset that makes it look as if the sky is on fire.
Kong: Skull Island is absolutely in love with that imagery. Fire is a big part of this story, especially in its climactic battle. The image of an angry beast with flames towering around him, looking down upon the tiny humans who dares believe that he can confront and control phenomena which render him insignificant is powerful, underlying the basic themes of the story.
Best of all, it looks amazing. There are nearly a dozen shots that are gorgeous, posters on a movie screen. The lush jungle landscapes and powerful military aircraft are shot lovingly, much like Michael Bay does for cityscapes and jet fighters in his Transformers films. The movie looks like a big-budget, fantasized version of a National Geographic photo spread combined with a Planet Earth documentary. The scenery and visual effects absolutely should be seen on the big screen, on the biggest surface possible to enjoy all of the iconographic wonder that Vogt-Roberts, cinematographer Larry Fong and the production’s massive team of digital effects artists have created.
Maybe Vogt-Roberts and his screenwriters felt like they had something to say about war, notably that some American soldiers may have still been looking for a fight after facing the bitter disappointment of losing the Vietnam War. (World War II also factors into the movie’s curious prologue, which doesn’t seem to make any sense until later in the story.)
Samuel L. Jackson’s Col. Packard most embodies that mentality. He can’t get over that loss. Unlike his soldiers, he has nothing left to go home to. His military achievements were how he defined himself. So when he’s given the opportunity to fly another mission, he jumps on it. The mission becomes even more fulfilling when he finds a new opponent to fight, a new enemy to conquer in Kong. Never mind that he and his team are invaders in another creature’s natural habitat. Packard wants to do to the giant ape what he didn’t get to do to the Viet Cong. He’s Captain Ahab hunting his great white whale. He’s not only lost a war, but probably lost his mind too.
However, the Apocalypse Now obsession is taken just a bit too far and probably should have just been left to the visual influences. The soundtrack includes so many music cues meant to invoke that era, so much so that it feels as if it came from a manual about making Vietnam War movies. “Time Has Come Today,” “White Rabbit,” “Run Through the Jungle,” “Bad Moon Rising” (this movie might be lost without Creedence Clearwater Revival), “Paranoid.” What’s surprising is that there were no Jimi Hendrix songs. No “All Along the Watchtower” or “Purple Haze.”
Those songs are hard-charging, and you can understand why soldiers would love them. But they really don’t serve any purpose, other than to provide a few seconds of transition to the next scene that’s supposed to pump us up, but doesn’t really lead to anything. Helicopters being loaded. Aircraft carriers pushing across the sea. Machine guns firing. Soldiers trudging through the jungle. But they’re just musical shortcuts. After the first two or three song clips, it just feels lazy.
What also feels lazy is Kong: Skull Island‘s use of an outstanding cast. Jackson is really the only actor given anything compelling to do on screen. His character is the only one who actually has motivation that means something to the story. (OK, John Goodman’s Bill Randa believes that monsters exist in uncharted regions and uses a supposed mapping expedition to prove his theories. That gets the story to the island. But once he’s there, there’s not much else for him to do, other than to run from beasts and avoid being gobbled up.)
Why are Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in this movie? Hiddleston is presumably supposed to be the dashing action hero who looks great in a tight t-shirt sweating through the jungle. But other than holding a rifle for some appealing action shots, he doesn’t have much to do.
Larson isn’t a damsel in distress, but a feisty presence who gives the movie some humor (along with John C. Reilly’s lost soldier). As a war photographer, maybe she’s supposed to be the audience’s bridge of understanding to these soldiers and what they’ve been through. She also allows Vogt-Roberts to take some beautiful still shots. Yet other than also looking great in a tight tank top sweating in tropical climates, her character doesn’t serve much purpose. You can almost feel her wanting to yell at the camera, “I am an Academy Award-winning actress! C’mon, man!”
That is some impressive talent (along with a supporting cast filled with good actors like Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann and John Ortiz) to have hired simply for the purpose of looking up at monsters with mouths agape in horror, narrowly avoid being eaten, and covered in muck and offal after dispatching the predators. Several times during the movie, you may find yourself wondering “What was the point of that?” when a character reaches a grisly end.
Yet it can’t be said that having a top-notch cast prevented the movie from having excellent visual effects. And Kong is undoubtedly the star of this movie. He’s never looked better, even if he may not be as anatomically correct as the beast in Jackson’s Kong film. Hey, King Kong should look a bit different. There’s nothing on Earth like him! That also goes for the creatures that populate Skull Island, monsters that look like nature gone horricially wrong. (Speaking of those monsters, make sure you don’t leave before the credits are finished, just in case you weren’t certain as to what this entire exercise was about. Everything’s a universe now.) As a blockbuster spectacle, Kong: Skull Island absolutely delivers.