Movie Review - Kong: Skull Island
By Ben Gruchow
March 16, 2017

I bet that thing's breath is terrible.

The ingenious part of employing the lost-world narrative is that it's terrifically difficult to screw up the takeoff or the landing. There are few things more alluring in cinema (or cinematic storytelling) than the expository revelation of an uncharted territory, never before seen or exploited by man, approached (on foot, or by plane or by boat) by a small crew that stands limited chance of overcoming adversity. Similarly, lost-world narratives will usually end with either an escape back to civilization, or a final development that hits some sort of reset button. It's in the middle that most of the variation happens, and where a movie in the subgenre solidifies its comparative worth or lack thereof. To be fair, there are adventure films that have found ways to air-clip all three segments (The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the most well-known offender, although by no means the only), but we generally have a baseline of quality that we know to expect when we go into the auditorium for these films, and we can sit back and see how far it exceeds that line.

The only thing that can make this baseline a liability is if you're dealing with a sequel to or a remake of a film that excelled in all three segments. This becomes a problem for Kong: Skull Island within the first few minutes, and persists all the way through the end credits. On its own, this is a more than capable adventure film: it takes place just long ago enough (the early 1970s) to believe the pitch of an uncharted island, pacing and revelation and character development are efficient if cynical, it employs nicely sweaty and saturated tones in an appropriate environment (deciduous jungle), and the visuals are persuasive. It is no match whatsoever for Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, which took place in a setting of greater adversity and less cynicism, established its cast of characters more vividly, and had a title creature rendered with superior visual effects. The new movie doesn't do anything particularly wrong, but it feels at all times like a shadow.

Both films even tackle the uniqueness of their setting in a similar way: the former by employing painterly and almost ethereal compositions, the latter by amping the color temperature and saturation up just past the point where we feel slightly oily and damp just looking at the screen. The movie also relocates from New York to Washington, D.C., and exchanges art-deco influence for Brutalist architecture; everything we see in the movie's first act has an unpleasant rigidity and cramped monotony to it. It's here that we meet Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), seismologists from an organization called Monarch; it is they who approach a senator (Richard Jenkins, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo) looking for funding to explore the latest uncharted island, to assemble a group of scientists, a military escort, and the other usual suspects. This provides us with the faces we've seen from the trailers: Tom Hiddleston as a former British official, Brie Larson as a wartime photojournalist, Samuel L. Jackson as Colonel Packard, who will accompany them in.

The movie's sense of time and place is evidently a conscious choice by the filmmakers; coming in at the end of a war that did not go as planned, countered by an enemy they did not adequately prepare for, gives the movie a decided political bent that it otherwise wouldn't have had much use for: the scientists are already disillusioned and recalcitrant from the military applications of their expedition, while the military wing joins in on the escort with the hope of having something to buoy them after a tour that damaged their spirits and motivation. And the observation of the movie's population being in over its head, and encountering an adversary whose tactics were unknown and unexpected, feels pointed without being overt.

Since the movie is subtitled Skull Island and not Everyone Gets a Break, it's not a spoiler to say that their arrival at the uncharted territory in question plunges them right back down the same rabbit hole: in unfamiliar tropical surroundings, out of their depth, incapable of knowing what they're about to face or what tools they'll need to prevail. This is true even before they helicopter right into a hundred-foot-tall ape with a limited but very functional understanding of projectile weaponry; they need to set off seismic charges to map the island, and so their first act upon arriving is to detonate explosions into animal populations, and the sequence makes it a very plain way of asserting that its participants are right back in the same hole they just left. The ape is, of course, Kong (the “King” is mostly dropped): the dominant predator of an island consisting of carnivores and herbivores that run the visual gamut from almost-normal to mutant-like. Their many helicopters make a rapid journey from the air to the ground, and we have our band of survivors trying to escape.

Thus begins the middle section of the film, and the one where its shortcomings in relation to the 2005 film begin to communicate themselves in gaudier ways. The difference in environment is a good way to shorthand this. Kong: Skull Island does possess the more convincing impression of a functional ecosystem; at any rate, it has a more balanced ratio of predators to prey. This is offset by the fact that we are still talking about a place containing arachnids the size of buildings and carnivorous, lizard-like bipeds. Past a certain point, design matters more than biological authenticity, and we are nowhere close to the alien, shudderingly insectile world of the earlier film. In Jackson's Skull Island, the leaves themselves seemed possessed of sinuous and conscious movement; here, for all the ingenuity of design in the creatures we see, Skull Island seems curiously sparse when it comes to fauna.

This doesn't go away when the film advances its plot, either; instead of a conflict between the opportunist and the storyteller, we have a conflict between the militant and the pacifist, with the militant mostly coming down on Packard's shoulders and requiring him to act in ways that betray pragmatism and common sense for the sake of the plot's resolution. He sells it well enough - few actors have the presence to stare down a giant ape, even a digital one, than Jackson - but it's still a mechanical development more than an organic one. Meanwhile, the energy and choreography that erupts in the film's violent final act serves mostly to stage and execute itself similarly to the show-stopping set piece between Kong and the V. Rexes midway through the earlier film, and to come up helplessly milder and more ordinary. And whereas the 2005 Kong had an actual ending, this one too obviously stops at the point that makes the most business sense for a sequel hook.

We are, ultimately, in ordinary territory here; this is a disappointment considering the evident preparation the movie takes to connect itself with the universe from 2014's Godzilla; it lacks that movie's intriguing on-the-ground perspective, shooting well-staged action from all the expected angles and with all the expected digital tricks. And despite beautiful photography by Larry Fong, last seen furiously trying to polish Batman v Superman, Skull Island doesn't really develop its own visual identity, betraying itself with awkward transitions between weighty and tense compositions and computer-aided flying shots and isolated slow-motion (there are those moments, though, where you just about want to eat the screen with your eyes, starting with an achingly gorgeous long take of Kong silhouetted by the sun in long shot as helicopters approach). It is a movie that more or less adheres to its expected baseline of quality, with occasional bumps above. That is more than we might have expected, but less than the title deserves.

3 out of 5