When I was young my dad introduced me to the 1933 classic King Kong film, ever since then I had been really drawn to one of cinemas most iconic beasts. Then came Peter Jackson’s remake in 2005 which I loved then and still really enjoy now. So it should be rather obvious by this point that I would naturally be very excited to see Kong return to the big screen little over a decade after his previous appearance.
This tale of Kong is different to the tale you’re probably familiar with. This film follows a group of soldiers and explorers as they embark upon an expedition to an uncharted island in order to be the first to discover it. Unbeknownst to them, Skull Island is inhabited by magnificent creatures including the 100 foot tall, Kong.
Let me begin with the direction, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ directorial career is still very young, the only other feature film he has helmed is 2013’s The Kings of Summer which is a film that gained a fair amount of praise and attention when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that year. One thing I can say with the upmost confidence is that Vogt-Roberts has a lot of potential and just like this film itself, the potential isn’t fully fulfilled. I noticed throughout the film he was wrestling with shooting aspects of the film in a more conventional cinematic style, and at other times he was attempting to shoot the film with his own unique and frenetic stylistic flair. Blend that with the sloppy editing throughout the entire film and you’re left with an end product that is rather jarring at times. There will be slower paced scenes in a more conventional manner and then all of a sudden it will cut to a more stylistically shot and edited sequence, it doesn’t often mesh together very well. One thing he certainly shines at as a director, is when it comes down to the spectacle and breathtaking imagery. All the scenes with Kong or the Skull Crawlers are framed well with wide angle shots that showcase the scale of these beasts and allow us to clearly see the action as it unfolds. I have seen the film twice, once in 2D and once in IMAX 3D and I must say those particular scenes in IMAX definitely enhance the experience. There are three key set pieces that I thought were well executed, the first time we get to properly see Kong as he swatting helicopters out of the sky, is truly spectacular. The build up to the scene itself, and the way things quickly spiral into mayhem and madness, with extreme levels of energy is enough to make you hold your breath in awe. Another sequence with a Skull Crawler in a graveyard was shot with an adequate level of tension as soldiers start getting picked off one by one. The use of a characters camera in this scene, (something I won’t spoil) was particularly effective and memorable.
The director of photography Larry Fong created some beautiful imagery. There’s more than a dozen shots that you could easily frame on your wall as a striking piece of art. The sun setting with Kong’s silhouette stood tall in front of it is just one of many examples, of the plethora of shots that are composed that undoubtedly take your breath away. I found it rather disappointing how the filmmakers handled the inclusion of all the other creatures on Skull Island. Aside from Kong and the Skull Crawlers, all the other creatures literally have cameos in the film that aren’t too much more than what we see of them in the trailers. It’s a great shame because the creature designs and visual effects are excellent, I just wish we got more time with them in the film. One scene involving a giant arachnid whose legs are camouflaged amongst the bamboo trees of the jungle, is another memorable sequence that would have been even better if it were a little longer.
Kong: Skull Island has a large ensemble cast but only two of those actors stood out to me in terms of having characters that were fully developed. Samuel L. Jackson’s Lieutenant Packard is man who clearly finds himself lost and out of place if he is not in a war. A man who values the lives of his squadron, they’re like his family. In the very early stages of the film Jackson conveys these things, and after being ambushed by Kong and losing the majority of his men, His motivation to rally up all of his surviving men to try and take down Kong is a believable one. John C. Reilly’s Lieutenant Hank Marlow is the other character that I thought received the right amount of development throughout the script. He was clearly added into the film to deliver the majority of the exposition and some comic relief, but there was a little more beneath his character which I wasn’t expecting. After crashing on Skull Island during World War II and being stuck there for 28 years, he is a man who is on the brink of losing his mind. In one scene he outlines that doesn’t even know if he’s talking out loud anymore or if it’s just inside his head. But aside from that, he’s thinking about his family back home who he hasn’t seen in all that time. Reilly handled those moments in a subdued manner that made you believe that underneath this loud character, is a man still holding out hope that he may one day reach back home to see his family.
The weakest links of the cast are both Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. None of them were bad by any means, the script just didn’t give them much to do other than stare in awe. I do give credit to the script for not creating a romance out of their character interactions, but some development especially with Hiddleston’s Former S.A.S. Captain, James Conrad was most definitely needed. Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver is an anti war photographer we know a little more about her character than we do Hiddleston’s but we still don’t know enough. It would’ve been nice to find out what motivates her with her work, also there’s an inconsistency through out the film of her taking photos of her surroundings and then deciding not to and vice versa. It’s almost as if they wanted to develop an element of the plot where she is suddenly against exposing the nature of what they are experiencing on the island. It’s handled so poorly within the script that it’s hard to indentify what she is deciding to do regarding her photography.
Surprisingly I thought most of the supporting cast made good and effective use of their limited screen time. Lt. Packard’s army squad consisted of Jason Mitchell who once again proves to be very charismatic as he takes full advantage of the scenes he’s in, with comedic moments as well as scenes where he shows a realistic level of fear and emotion, more than anybody else in the whole film. Toby Kebbell’s character is a man who carries a little notebook around with him, writing letters to his son. It’s a nice subtle touch to his character which immediately makes you want to see him make it off the island alive. I still haven’t even covered half of the cast, it’s a massive ensemble of solid actors and the film uses most of them effectively. It’s refreshing to see a blockbuster ensemble with a cast this strong even if some of them did end up getting a little shortchanged.
The time frame in which this film is set, 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War is a great asset of the film. It allows Vogt-Roberts to make this film his own without relying too heavily on the classic Kong story. The film wears it’s influences on it’s sleeve with pride. Aside from some obvious anime influences which Vogt-Roberts has confirmed himself, the most obvious one has to be Apocalypse Now. From Samuel L. Jackson’s solider consumed by war gone mad, to the napalm and the blistering yellow and orange sunsets, the film is a perfect example of how to pay homage to another film without ripping it off.
The musical score felt a little flat, there isn’t many memeorable pieces of music that was composed for it. In fact the only theme that I can remember is the foreboding theme that is synonymous with Lt. Packard. I’m unsure what instruments were used to compose the piece of music, but it creates a unique sound that stands out among the rest of the score.
One issue I have with the film is that I wanted more Kong. I didn’t feel like there was enough of him. Which feels bizarre to say and if you have seen Legendary Pictures’s 2014 Godzilla you’re probably thinking in your head, well there’s much more Kong in this film than there was Godzilla in that film. That is true, but strangely enough I felt fully satisfied with everything we got of Godzilla in that film, But the same can’t be said for Kong in this film. When the film ended I was not fully satisfied and I wanted more. Despite seeing Kong frequently through out the film, in a lot of those scenes he isn’t doing much and then when we finally get to see him fighting, the sequence felt like it was five or so minutes too short. It doesn’t help that not only was the final fight of the film short, but the film ends probably two minutes after it in what is a very abrupt ending. The climax as a whole made me leave the cinema feeling a little disappointed if I’m honest, whereas Godzilla made me leave the cinema on a high, with a massive smile on my face.
Despite it’s flaws, Kong: Skull Island is a really enjoyable Vietnam era monster movie. This type of large scale monster entertainment is rare these days and although it didn’t fully live up to its potential, Jordan Vogt-Roberts and company have made a refreshingly different new iteration of Kong.
(3 Stars out of 5)
Kong: Skull Island; Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell and Shea Whigham.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Now showing in UK & US Cinemas.