Review: Kong Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson

There are movies that are greater than the sum of their parts. Movies that, in spite of inherent flaws or elements you might think would play against the whole, manage to coalesce into something better, something beautiful even. This is because a piece of art is not the individual parts that make it a piece but the way in which they are combined. A great Monet is not thought to be great because of the canvas that was chosen or because those paints were The Best Paints. It is what is expressed when all elements combine. When an artistic vision is realised. When soul is involved.

Therefore, however, the opposite can always be true, as it is here. In effect and given a greater degree of charity than I’m affording it here, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ movie is a 2-star adventure flick about giant monsters. But I’d like to take this time to make a case, if you’ll permit me, for why it is so much less than the sum of its parts. My case for why Kong Skull Island is one of the worst Hollywood blockbusters ever made. It’s not because all of the elements are the worst examples of their kind, it’s more that never before have such failings been smashed together with such brazen disrespect for audiences or – and I’m being serious here – the future of cinema.

Skull Island is a big, bumbling “fuck you” to goodness everywhere.

First though, a small positive. This reboot is exactly that; a reboot. It scrubs out any previous Kong picture. In doing so it loosens somewhat the shackles of the series’ major thematic sourness. These movies have previously been, deep down, racist films about slavers guilt and the white man’s fear of the black man, depicted as an oversized primitive who will run amok if not controlled and steal women in the bargain. The whole “let’s capture it and bring it back” angle has been expunged, replaced instead with a rather murky treatise on post-war malaise. It’s 1973, America has just withdrawn from Vietnam, everyone feels like a loser. The time and context reshapes the island of Skull as an echo of Vietnam; a jungle that its invaders assume with hubris that they can conquer.

This is a slim victory for the film, however, as it does very little with this alternate premise other than warp and abandon it. The writing here is dreadful, sloppy, suspiciously patchwork, suggesting a final draft assembled from wildly different versions that went before it. An overall tone proves elusive and that plays out through Vogt-Roberts’ insipid directorial choices.

John Goodman’s entrepreneurial explorer Bill Randa petitions the US military to help him explore the titular island which he cites as similar in nature to the Bermuda triangle (but not similar to a tin foil hat; see aforementioned inane writing). He gets his wish by playing the Ruskie card – better get there before the Soviets – and presto, we’re off to Skull Island. Taking us there is embittered vet Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and a platoon of grunts who are only one day away from getting to go home (seriously). Packard hires an expert in tracking, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and some sciencey-types fill out the numbers along with anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). They fly to the island, meet Kong and things go off plan.

There’s a lot of good acting talent here but it’s all wasted. Hiddleston takes top billing, but his character doesn’t actually have any character, so he ultimately becomes the invisible man here; always there but uniformly the least significant person on screen. As the film stutters to pick its lead, the other players pass by the camera like confused shoppers caught in a malfunctioning revolving door. Goodman has the charisma but he’s not well served. Jackson, well, he’ll do anything and put the same amount of effort in regardless. Larson is the token woman in a major supporting role (just as Tian Jing is the token woman in a minor supporting role; neither have much agency and the latter barely gets a line).

Photojournalist Weaver might register our sympathies more than most of the others, but the margins are gossamer thin. Skull Island is so baffled as to which of these ragtag characters it wants us to care about that it ultimately favours the comic relief played by John C Reilly who we don’t meet until the second act. He gets to play lead by default. Skull Island  picks him like a magpie pecking at a shiny chocolate wrapper; he’s the most distracting player, and this film only exists as spectacle. By it’s own barometer he’s enough.

But Reilly – who is the only enjoyable element in all of this – brings out the problem of tone. Nobody here seems to know what movie they’re making. The film frequently stops wholesale for another blast from the accompanying soundtrack album (out now, probably), so it recalls the music video bagginess of Zack Snyder. It’s shot like it’s a J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie (so much fucking artificial lens flare) and every actor seems to be working from a different note. Hiddleston seems to think he’s in Apocalypse Now. Reilly is more Tropic Thunder by way of Kurt Russell in Captain Ron. The result is a movie that through to its core doesn’t know what it is and, more worryingly, has no reason to care about that anyway. Coherency isn’t important. Whether any of this is any good or not just isn’t valued.

The screenwriters here (who include Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy) have replaced the concept of having even nominally dimensional characters with the notion that a funny one-liner will do the job for you. The upshot of this is that a) it doesn’t and b) there’s no real request for investment in anyone. It’d be a waste of your time anyway. Skull Island favours the ‘surprise’ quick death when it removes players from the board, but none of these ‘shocks’ generate anything beyond indifference, most feel cheap, all are missed opportunities in a film made out of missed opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of all is Kong himself. His reveal is blown pre-credits (again, poorly), so when we get to the island, the notion of gravitas is forgotten. His first meaty appearance in the main narrative is wholly squandered. Skull Island rests on the laurels of our familiarity from previous films, so never assumes it’s worth taking the time to generate awe. The first time you see Kong interact with these characters – the first shot of that sequence – feels like an afterthought. It’s so ham-fisted as to beggar belief, and it doesn’t do the unconvincing CGI any favours whatsoever.

I know what kind of movie this is supposed to be, okay? I’m not a moron. Complaining about things not registering as true in a fun film about an island of gigantic monsters is a shortcut to sounding like a loon. But none of it sells. The best fantasy films use deft techniques to draw us into their incredible notions, to immerse us, to sell us the idea of the amazing. Skull Island tries to bypass all of this work, and in doing so it monumentally fails at establishing anything. We don’t believe in Kong. He’s just another weightless mass of digital noise. And we certainly don’t believe in the god-awful lizard monsters he’s supposed to be protecting our protagonists from. It’s not fantastic. It’s dull, stupid or an interminable combination of the two.

Is Skull Island the worst film ever made? No. No, it is not. But it does give the green light for the worst film ever made to go into production. The lack of interest in making anything good or coherent here is what is the most appalling. Skull Island simply doesn’t care that it’s awful or that you’ll have a shitty time watching it. What you do once you’ve bought the ticket is your business. As long as you’ve bought the ticket, Skull Island doesn’t care if you leave the theatre without even seeing the damned movie. Because this is commerce without integrity. The quality of the viewer’s experience isn’t a factor. You want hard evidence of Hollywood as the cliché gluttonous money machine? Here it is. Skull Island ends on the promise / threat of further adventures in it’s newly redrafted universe. A place of plot holes, artistic anemia and hate-fucking the audience into submission with harmful dross that isn’t fun but feeble, condescending and annoying.

And it does harm us. It asks us to Expect Less. This is the cinema of Expecting Less. Of reducing standards. Of giving in, bit by bit. Until everything is just trash, just content, just noise. Until it doesn’t matter what you or I think of something because there’s nothing to think. Skull Island isn’t the worst movie ever made, but it wouldn’t care if it was. And that’s scarier than any giant ape.


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