This post contains spoilers (also for Godzilla (2014)).
When it comes to big budget fantasy films like Kong: Skull Island I usually have rather subdued expectations. What I mean by that is that I often come in thinking something among the lines of ‘I am sure I will be entertained to some level, but I don’t expect anything more’. This was definitely true for some of the last big budget features I have seen that centre on slightly-larger-than-usual beasts. Godzilla (2014) did not amaze me with anything more than the fact that they killed off Bryan Cranston’s character so early on. Jurassic World (2015) had a bare minimal of tricks up its sleeve, the only redeeming factor being a high dosage of nostalgia. With a promise to be just as action-packed and CGI-heavy, can Kong: Skull Island deliver anything more than that?
It’s a tough one. Kong: Skull Island does not waste much time introducing the impressive giant gorilla, who is seen attacking two pilots who have crash-landed on his island in the opening scenes of the film. The unlucky pilots, one American and one Japanese, are identified as soldiers in the Second World War. Even though it seems a pretty sure fact that they have become victims of Kong’s rage, there is that not so subtle hint that we haven’t seen the last of these characters just yet. The fact that Kong is introduced so soon might also not come as a surprise for those who have seen the trailer and thus know that he is not the only out-of-proportion beast roaming around on Skull Island. In other words, Kong doesn’t need the element of surprise, as the makers still have an array of other creatures to introduce which are lesser known both in stature and reputation.
One flash forward later and we are in the 1970s. The film spends more time making sure that its viewers are really convinced that indeed, this is the seventies, than it is with properly introducing its main characters. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is first up as the obsessed government agent who will lead the mission to Skull Island. The rest of the crew is quickly formed – cue scene in which Tom Hiddleston’s character expresses serious doubt about the mission but agrees to come when offered a hefty reward – and they are on their way.
Where Kong: Skull Island takes minimal time to introduce its characters, it takes even less time to kill most of them off. As soon as the helicopters break through the clouds of Skull Island they are met with an aggravated Kong in full battle mode. The ensuing action scene is extremely drawn out, and could perhaps rightfully be labelled ‘epic’ had it not been so ridiculous. A long string of shots of Kong fighting in the most majestic of ways almost raises the question of a hidden agenda – perhaps the giant gorilla is looking for the perfect selfie angle? With a bright red sunset in the background, and some explosions carefully situated in the right and left hand corners, it would be an amazing set-up for snapchat.
All jokes aside, it’s the preoccupation with the visual that sets Kong: Skull Island apart from some of its mega monster counterparts. Individual shots get a huge amount of emphasis, especially as they are made as ‘epic’ as possible to stun the audience. This quest for the perfect shot is echoed within the film, as photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) does her best to capture the unimaginable creatures which inhabit the island. By confronting viewers with highlighted glimpses of the ineffable the film is doing its best to put spectators in the shoes of the adventures they see on screen, and allows them to experience the fragmented and confused reality that those characters find themselves in.
Although the emphasis on strong visuals is definitely a noteworthy aspect of the movie, it is a shame that this powerful imagery often fails to elicit the right reaction. Paired with an abundance of sounds, bad timing, and just a whole lot of craziness flying around on the screen, the shots often lack nuance. It’s just overdone in a way that at times I found myself chuckling in my seat, while also thinking ‘come on, you could’ve done better than that.’
While the film pumps up the spectacle on the one hand, it remains annoyingly vacant when it comes to presenting interesting and well-rounded characters. Hiddleston plays the adventurous ex-soldier, Larson is there to snap some pictures, and Samuel L. Jackson is the baddie of the bunch. Little is done to scope out these characters in more detail, which is a massive missed opportunity in a film like this.
More interesting is the character of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who appears mid-film to reveal himself as the American pilot from the opening scene, who – surprise surprise – survived his encounter with Kong and has been living on the island ever since. Bringing some much needed comic relief to the film, he helps make the second part of the movie feel a bit more dynamic.
There are times where Kong: Skull Island seems to be aware that it is a bit ridiculous, but I am not quite sure whether in this instance, I should count that in its favour. It certainly has not been able to escape the traps that others have fallen into, choosing spectacle over substance, and coming too close to the familiar and the cliché. The following questions then remain: Is it entertaining? Yes. Is it more than that? Only just. I sometimes like to measure a film’s success by how well it stands out in my memory, whether that’s for good or bad reasons. Those epic shots definitely left an impression, which is more than I can say about many other fantasy films I have seen. Make of that what you will.