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