Kong: Skull Island is a crushing disappointment, a film so slipshod, so ill-conceived at nearly every level of filmmaking, it almost seems like a personal affront to those who value entertainment. Here is a film that deliberately and repeatedly nods to movies of the past, without understanding anything that made those films work so well. It’s one of those big-studio tentpole releases whose only goal is to set the audience up for its sequels, because of course this is going to turn into a franchise, isn’t it?
Where to start… John Goodman’s character works for an organisation called Monarch. Monarch’s satellites have found a never before explored island in the South Pacific, which they would, you know, like to explore. They hire a military escort for this purpose, as well as a decommissioned British officer who’s like Indiana Jones without the Indiana Jones part. Some assorted scientists and a female war photographer tag along, apparently just for gits and shiggles. Even though a severe, hurricane-like storm is supposed to be surrounding the island on all sides, the helicopters make it through with no problem.
And this is where I realised there would be no awe, no wonder, no joy in the movie whatsoever. Remember how Gareth Edwards was so expert in building tension and executing big reveals for his monsters in the recent Godzilla? Nope, none of that here; we see Kong right away, all of him, as he crushes the helicopters and plucks them out of the sky. The military officers are quite pissed about this, but, hey, we all swipe at mosquitoes, don’t we? Everyone gets scattered across the island in ways that don’t make any geographical sense, but the screenplay needs them to be separated so there can be excitement and adventure while they find each other.
With a budget of $185 million, I’m at a loss to explain where the money has gone. It certainly couldn’t have been in any of the visuals. Every interior shot seems lit to look as much as possible like a 1980s prime time network drama. Every exterior shot looks like an interior shot. There’s a nagging sense that; maybe these people aren’t on an island at all; maybe they’re in a room filled with giant green screens. I know for a fact that the filmmakers did, in fact, shoot many scenes outdoors, which makes this sin more egregious somehow.
The visual effects here are astounding, in the sense that the CGI at once looks incredibly expensive and wholly unconvincing. A preview for the film Geostorm played before my screening of Kong: Skull Island; it seems that this is now the norm for visual effects. I’m not sure what the point is of paying millions and millions of dollars for images that don’t look any more realistic than the ones in The Fox and the Hound, but I’m not a Hollywood financier. As the Black & Chrome Edition of Mad Max: Fury Road showed me, the removal of colour information makes CGI actually look much more realistic. I guess we’ll have to wait for Black and Chrome Kong to really tell.
Why are John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, and Tom Hiddleston in this movie? I find it a bit objectionable to try to ascribe motivations to filmmakers I cannot possibly know, but I’ll guess: money. It certainly can’t be the characters. There are no characters in Kong: Skull Island. I thought about describing the people in the film as cardboard cutouts of familiar tropes, but that would mislead you into thinking they’re deeper than they really are. Nothing, no one in this film has anything approaching a personality. It’s as if the screenplay referenced each role with exactly one adjective, and the director never gave the actors anything more to work with.
This goes for Kong and the other monsters as well. Animals actually do have personalities, but maybe there wasn’t quite enough in the budget for them here. I’m not looking for Kong to be Caesar from the Planet of the Apes reboots, but I would like some sense of intelligence behind his eyes. Everything he does in this film—anything any character does in this film—he does just because the screenplay demands it. The only one with any semblance of a psyche at all is the John C Reilly character, but’s he’s essentially just a slapstick version of Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now.
Which brings up the final perplexing point about Kong: Skull Island. It goes out of its way to reference other films, like Jurassic Park (‘hold on to your butts,’ helicopter shots through the tropical island, nocturnal encounters with big benign beasts) and Apocalypse Now (John C Reilly, helicopter raids, fires in the jungle). Sometimes, this can be good—a way for filmmakers to acknowledge past influences and have fun re-contextualising their imagery. Here, the effect is simply to highlight how fraudulent and hollow Kong: Skull island is, and make you wish a competent filmmaker had been at the helm.
Clearly, I want you to avoid this film at all costs. But look, I get it: it’s monsters fighting each other, and that’s bound to appeal to a certain demographic. Before you take your kids, though, make sure you’re okay with them seeing humans graphically impaled, their limbs being violently torn off. They’ll also see a lot of blood sprays, animals getting their brains blown out, and some sequences that look copied straight from a Trials of Life video. If you’re cool with all that, then have some good, PG-13 family fun!