Kong: Skull Island is fun, rip-roaring adventure movie with a healthy dose of visual panache. The film is bursting with kinetic energy and color, and any chance director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and DP Larry Fong had to shoot the hell out of something, then by Kong, they did. I’m not joking when I say that the amount of shots in Skull Island which are genuinely awe-inspiring is almost overwhelming. Take the iconic HALO jumping sequence from Godzilla (2014) and crank it up to 11. These moments of visual feasting are, by and large, the biggest draw of the film, even though there were moments when I had to ask myself “Maybe this could have been shot more casually, Larry, it’s just a conversation”. I stopped myself, however, because in a time when so many blockbusters are visually inert, it’s ridiculous to complain that one is making TOO many bold choices.
The film takes place in the days following the end of the Vietnam War. We’re introduced to scientist Bill Randa (an underused John Goodman) who is seeking to find proof that monsters exist in the world. Randa has a first person account of what destroyed his ship in WWII (the first of many references to other Universal monster properties) but no one believes him. Filled with a desire to prove his work, he drags several other scientists along to chart Skull Island, while also making sure to bring a military escort he knows will be of use.
Here we’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Lieutenant Colonel Packard. A career soldier now faced with peace time, we meet Packard as he looks in a case of his medals and mutters “All this for what?”. The veteran is only too happy to sign his men on to another mission, even if it sounds like a boring escort. Once they make landfall and meet a less than enthused Kong, Packard finds new purpose in transferring his desire for conflict to killing the beast who took so many of his men. There’s a shot of Jackson surrounded by flames and dying soldiers; he looks up at Kong and practically smiles. His war gets to continue.
Packard’s story of being unable to let go of the war is a familiar one, and has been told about Vietnam veterans for generations since the conflict (most famously in works like Rambo and Apocalypse, Now! which the movie takes some of its cues from). It’s not the only story going on, though, and this is where the film stumbles the most. Kong: Skull Island is Packard’s story. But it’s also sometimes Randa’s story, Kong’s story, Weaver and Conrad’s story (nobly played by Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, having a good time despite not much inner life), and perhaps most importantly, Hank Marlow’s story. Marlow is the WWII veteran who crashed on the island in 1944 and given hilarious, touching, and badass life by the MVP of the film, John C. Reilly. That’s not even to say how the movie takes time to introduce many of the soldiers under Packard’s command, ably played by the likes of Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham, and Toby Kebbell.
The soldiers are all fun, and their camaraderie feels real and leads to many of the most entertaining bits in the movie (which is so funny that it could even be described as quirky). It’s almost as if Vogt-Roberts, in responding to the lack of good human characters in the 2014 Godzilla, filled his movie to bursting with them. With the film’s focus on it’s excellent action set pieces, though, and with so many stories to keep track of, we only ever get close to fulfilling the human characters. There are still a good number of great moments from the entire cast, but beyond Packard’s mad desire for conflict, or Reilly’s effusive mannerisms, none are as memorable as they could be. The peaks are so high and constant in Skull Island that the valleys needed to be just a little quieter or less divided among the sprawling cast to allow them room to breathe, grow, and take root in the audiences mind.
With a sprawling adventure/monster movie, the set pieces are really what people show up for, and this is what the film has in spades. Each sequence was carefully crafted to be unique, badass, and fun to watch. Whether the film is showing us the soldiers wrestling with a giant spider cleverly disguised in a bamboo forest, John C. Reilly taking on a Lizard Bro (seriously, the Skull Crawlers are the Skull Island equivalent of That Guy at your local gym) with a samurai sword, or Kong beating the shit out of an octopus, each sequence is vividly entertaining. The helicopter battle is a standout, as is an incredibly clever scene in a boneyard featuring a camera flash, poison gas, and a delightful use of slow motion, and of course the final tussle between Kong and the Momma Lizard.
I think it’s likely that the disparate narratives at play in Kong: Skull Island will leave some audiences wanting, but the film still packs in the spectacle like no one’s business. It’s visual flair and action set pieces set it far apart from more humdrum blockbuster fare. You could do worse at the cinema than seeing a movie featuring this many great actors having a good time while well choreographed and lovingly detailed monster fights go on.