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