At the core of Jordan Vogt-Roberts first deviation into the world of the blockbuster – off the back of his indie hit The Kings of Summer – is a barbed study on the human condition, our ignorant sense of superiority, and somewhat bleak relationship with nature. To study the flaws and conscience of mankind seems a fitting theme given the picture is set during the Vietnam war – but it’s an element we merely scratch the surface of, in a film that otherwise thrives in its playful, irreverent approach, endearingly kitsch and gloriously overstated, with an unwavering commitment to entertainment.
Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his sidekick Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are convinced there are undiscovered creatures on Skull Island, a remote location in the Pacific where no explorers have been and survived to tell of their discoveries. Managing to convince the government to fund their trip – alongside military accompaniment provided by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his squadron – they set off, unaware of what horrors may be coming their way.
Also on the trip is esteemed explorer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as several other helicopters filled with scientists and soldiers – but it’s a collective heavily depleted upon arrival, when they upset the island’s most powerful beast, Kong. With just a few survivors, they know they must make their way to the collection point to ensure any hope of getting back home safely – and when they encounter Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been stranded here for almost three decades, they know it’s wise to follow his lead. Well, at least some of them do.
To be fast-paced and ensure the viewer remains compelled by the narrative is essential for a film of this nature – but it’s taken to the limit by Vogt-Roberts, as we move rapidly through characters and sub-story-lines in the opening act, never pausing for breath, to make for a convoluted set-up the picture never truly recovers from. There are also too many characters involved that we’re required to get to know, over-saturated, and overly complex, without any true focus, no paramount protagonist to involve ourselves in emotionally, as no one role is given the time and freedom to be developed substantially. This lack of attachment and engagement with the characters proves detrimental to the narrative too, particularly given it becomes a tale of survival, and it transpires we’re aren’t fussed if anybody actually survives.
It doesn’t help matters that we meet Kong so early, detracting from the suspense of the piece, as we crave more intensity when they arrive at their destination. It’s here you want Vogt-Roberts to thrive on the tropes of the horror genre, as we anticipate their first meeting with the eponymous beast, and yet it happens before they’ve even landed. So while comparisons can be made to Jurassic Park in the latter stages, the Spielberg endeavour flourished thanks to having such an absorbing set-up. Kong: Skull Island, on the other hand, is the epitome of a film of two halves, with a horribly contrived, mawkish opening, taking a while before things get rather interesting. The change of tone, and fortunes, arrives with the introduction of John C. Reilly, easily the best thing about this piece, that manages to take badly written comedic one-liners, and make them actually rather funny, providing the humour and the film’s pathos at the same time.
Sadly the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, and while accomplished performances, they’ve very little to work on with this hackneyed, lacklustre screenplay. So while the effects are impressive at times, making for a true visual treat on the big screen – when dealing with a script quite as awful as this one (epitomised in the underwritten, superfluous romantic narrative between Hiddleston and Larson), it doesn’t really matter how impressive other elements of the film are, it’s always going to struggle to be considered a triumph.
Kong: Skull Island is released on March 10th. Watch our interviews from the film’s UK premiere here.