Length: 118 mins
Writers: John Gatins (story); Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly (screenplay)
Dir.: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman
For almost as long as cinema has been a thing, Hollywood has been making King Kong movies. The first film, released way back in 1933, remains a genuine cinematic gem which has inspired a generation of filmmakers. But subsequent attempts at follow-ups and reboots have mostly been… well… shit.
First there was Son of Kong, which was released the same year as the original movie, oddly enough; then the 1976 remake with Jeff Bridges; then King Kong Lives in 1986 with Linda Hamilton, in which Kong’s heart is replaced with an artificial one for some reason; Queen Kong, essentially a gender-swapped remake of the original; and, of course, Peter Jackson’s terminally dull 2005 movie that somehow managed to make film about a giant ape mind-numbingly boring. And that’s not mentioning the slew of animated and Japanese movies featuring the titular ape – the latter of which usually comprise of Kong fist-fighting with Godzilla for the majority of the runtime.
Now, a good 10 and a bit years after their last attempt, Warner Bros., in their infinite wisdom, decided to change the emphasis from remake to reboot – shifting the action forward by 40 years and setting the movie during the dying days of the Vietnam War. The ill-fated conflict is more of a backdrop than a central theme of the narrative, and amounts to little more than an excuse to use 70s pop songs in the soundtrack. Basically, it’s a mash-up of Apocalypse Now and your standard monster movie and, while this mix is interesting, the movie just… doesn’t quite work.
In fairness to Skull Island, it is a reasonably entertaining flick and there’s lots of stuff that it gets right. The performances are good, the majority of the characters are okay (if under-developed), and it’s surprisingly well shot for an action movie that relies so heavily on CGI. The main element that lets the film down is its story.
That’s not to say that the story is particularly bad – it’s relatively simple, but effective. It’s just that, outside of the over-arching plot, there is waaaaay too much going on for any of it to be particularly satisfying. This is in large part down to the sheer number of characters in the film – there are so many plot lines that it’s next to impossible for any of them to have a satisfying conclusion. None of the leads are particularly well characterised, they don’t really grow or develop as the film goes on (at least, not in any meaningful way), they’re just… there. It gives the impression that there was originally a much bigger plan for the movie – a far more elaborate and complex plot – that was mercilessly cut from the narrative. It’s a coherent film (which, given the circumstances, is a blessing), but oddly empty.
I’ll tell you what it is: this is a movie made around visual set-pieces. It’s like the filmmakers decided on the visuals they wanted and then wrote a story to link them together – and at times, this can be fairly nonsensical. This is particularly apparent towards the end of the movie – during a sequence from the trailer we see Twiddleston wearing a gas mask and going mental with a samurai sword in a haze of green smoke. It’s a cool visual to be sure, but I found myself wondering if a Japanese character had been written into the story specifically so that Twiddle-chops could have a samurai sword – added purely so that scene could exist. There are a few moments like this that really took me out of the movie, and it represents some incredibly lazy screenwriting.
The film boasts quite an impressive group of actors, but it struggles to give them anything meaningful to do – and I couldn’t get away from the fact that many of them had been miscast. For instance, as much as I like John C. Reilly, he doesn’t really fit the feel of the movie – his awkward, Whedon-esque comedy (which I like) felt really out of place given the tone of the film. Similarly, someone had the bright idea to cast Twiddle-de-dee in the seasoned adventurer/gruff soldier of fortune role and it just doesn’t work. I couldn’t buy him as that character at all – partly because the story doesn’t give him a chance to sell himself, but he basically doesn’t suit the part.
Can we talk about Tom Hiddleston for a minute? The man is a fine actor – that is not a matter for dispute – but I get the distinct impression that Hollywood hasn’t quite figured out what to do with him yet. He’s criminally under-used here, playing the apparently grizzled ex-SAS tracker, James Conrad (nice Heart of Darkness reference – presumably made by someone who hasn’t read the book…), a character who we first meet in a brothel. Imagine Tom Hiddleston in a brothel. If, in your mind’s eye, you’re not picturing him in a full suit, wiping down chairs with a handkerchief before he sits down, and looking at everything with a good old fashioned British air of disgust… then, frankly, you’re a liar.
If you cut out a few of the characters (mainly Samuel L Jackson’s part that just complicated the narrative), streamlined the story a bit, and gave the audience time to get to know the people on screen, then Skull Island would be a decent movie. As it is, the film is entertaining, but lacking in any real substance.
Look, I like seeing a giant gorilla twat a massive not-dinosaur with a tree as much as the next person, but the movie doesn’t have much more going for it than that. It’s a triumph of style-over-substance filmmaking and a worryingly forgettable first installment in what Warner Bros. no doubt hopes to be a long running franchise. Fun enough, but that’s about it.