by Chris Feil
Kong is back for another franchise chasing smash-em-up with a slight reimagining in Kong: Skull Island. This time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is aiming almost exclusively for amusement park thrills after Peter Jackson’s high gloss, Very Serious take a decade ago. While the film does deliver the fun with its own visual zeal and resistance to some of the staples of Kong’s past, Skull Island is best met with limited expectations...
Set at the tail end of the Vietnam War, the film follows a crew of scientists and soldiers charged with proving existence of subterranean monsters on a hidden island in the Pacific. The film doesn’t wait too long to introduce the big guy, who promptly wreaks havoc and separates the team. The journey to their rendezvous point provides a host of natives, giant bugs, and massive lizard creatures built to take down Kong himself. Despite its noisy spectacle, its modest, straightforward B-movie ambitions are a relief compared to its brooding and convoluted contemporaries - Skull Island wants to be little more than a monster movie on a large scale.
While its zippy and occasionally awe-inspiring visuals are sometimes dampened by jerky editing, the abruptly paced film is the kind of digestible confection in too short supply these days for big budget actioners. The mayhem isn’t without wit, and it delights in toying with the audience for plenty of genuine squirm-inducing moments. Many of its gorgeous attempts at iconography have already been spent in trailers, but the Larry Fong cinematography is quite dynamic.
Where it does often come up short is its characterizations of its inordinately large (but thankfully diverse) ensemble. Forget remembering their names or particulars: its focus is spread too thin over too many mild archetypes, the stakes more defined than the characters. The best results are the unexpected chemistry between buddies Jason Mitchell and Shea Whigham, and John C. Reilly’s uncloying charm. Brie Larson and John Goodman remain some of our most watchable actors when given very little to work with. Tom Hiddleston fares the worst, our beigest leading actor best left in the hands of auteurs like Jim Jarmusch.
Tropes in the Jurassic Park mold may be present here, but Skull Island is also refreshing for remaining unbeholden to Kong lore. Though it may mean less of an emotional connection to the giant ape than we’ve had in the past, the film shakes off repeated themes and story beats to find a scrappier monster hero. If the tradeoff of less human characters is a more animalistic Kong, this result is at least looser and more enjoyable.
Perhaps more satisfying as a rollercoaster than the groundwork for a new franchise, Kong: Skull Island is something of a firmly qualified success as a genre piece.