Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island follows some scientists, some soldiers, an anti-war photojournalist, and a world-weary tracker as they explore (read: blow-up) an unmapped tropical island that is home to a myriad of massive fauna. Unfortunately, I was not mystified by the enigmatic jungle, but by the construction of this weird, weird movie. The writing and direction in Skull Island are more at odds than Kong and his nemeses, the big bony lizards.
The plot and dialogue in this film unmistakably belong to a blockbuster action flick. There are three writers credited – Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly – and at least one of them was on a mission to drop a stock action movie line into every interaction. At one point, the lines “Come on, you son of a bitch!” and “Come on, you bastard!” were spoken by two separate characters within a five minute period. Every cliche is accounted for, even an obligatory self-sacrifice (I promise you this is not a spoiler, it has nothing to do with the plot or its characters and may even be a joke, I just can’t be sure). That said, I like a dumb action movie now and again, if the writing had been allowed to inhabit the right space it may have worked, but the direction is not that of an action movie.
The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, just never gives us the amount of “cool” it takes to make goofy action writing work. The shots jump between the very wide and the very close. The wide shots show the awesome scale of the beasts and the minute stature of the people, while the tight shots generally peer right into the eyes of human and ape alike. Yet, there is nothing resonant to be found in those eyes, and the scale of the beasts and the people does not elicit any kind of existential or emotional response because the writing simply doesn’t support it. The visuals would bolster an introspective war drama’s script, but that isn’t what was written. Breakneck paced editing attempts to stitch the direction to the writing but succeeds only in making it hard to know exactly what is going on at any given moment – one of many reasons this film never succeeds in engrossing the viewer.
Skull Island features a tribe of people that have nothing to say, and I am not referring to the silent island natives. Not one of the bafflingly large group of castaways undergoes a character arc or personal growth. The viewer is given no reason to become attached to any of these characters, they are too flimsy (though John C. Reilly puts up a good fight and supplies us with some human moments and the only decent laughs). The biggest factor in each character’s decision-making process seems to be how cool an action will look in slow-motion. Why not grab a katana and a gas mask and charge into a toxic cloud to slice up some pterodactyls?
There is almost an interesting allegory at work, painting Kong as a metaphor for wanton warfare. The monomaniacal, chip-on-his-shoulder Lt. Col. Packard makes the ape an enemy because he is looking for one, and his soldiers needlessly lose their lives and have several “just following orders” moments. This metaphor is muddled-up, however, by the reptilian skull crawlers who I guess are the actual enemies in a movie that waxes philosophical about imagined enemies and fruitless fighting for two hours. Really the skull crawlers are just there so that Kong has something big and ugly to punch. Which, admittedly, is sometimes fun to watch.
All told, Kong: Skull Island was a letdown. I’d like the next movie in this cinematic universe to feature Godzilla and Kong teaming-up to squash all these woefully underdeveloped human characters and clobber Ghidorah without any of their melodramatic interruptions.