‘Kong: Skull Island’ brings indie and television director Jordan Vogt-Roberts to the world of big-budget studio filmmaking, which he does with intermittent success. (Random plug: If you haven’t seen Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer, please do. It’s pure coming-of-age fun.) Here, Vogt-Roberts has made a gorgeously captured film and staged several moments of impressive action but ultimately ‘Kong: Skull Island’ feels too big for the director. There is never a sense he has a firm grasp on the material or clear idea of what kind of movie he wants to make.
The movie is set in 1973, during the last leg of the Vietnam War, with a great deal of political unrest in Washington (there are a few lines of a dialog that will elicit a snicker or two about our current state of affairs). While everyone on the Hill have a great deal on their mind, Bill Randa (John Goodman) is convinced there is something worth exploring on the uncharted Skull Island. He is reluctantly given the green light to form a team to explore the island.
The risks of this mission are clearly laid out for Bill but he ignores them and continues on to the island with a military escort. The bitter Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) leads the way, along with James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who is seemingly just along for the ride.
When they get to the island, they meet a wealth of creatures, including the most famous gorilla the movies have ever seen. Kong isn’t the only creature inhabiting Skull Island – the movie is more of a monster mash, rather than a straight Kong movie.
There aren’t just monsters on this island. The team also meet Hank Marlow (John C. Riley), who has been stranded for nearly 30 years after his plane crashed on the island. Riley is the intended comic relief, in a movie that already feels too light when there are supposed to be life-or-death stakes at hand.
The biggest issue with ‘Kung: Skull Island’ is the movie’s inability to commit to an action film or a dark comedy because Vogt-Roberts has trouble make the two separate tones mix. We spend a lot of time with the characters over the titular monster, which would be fine, but everyone is so one-dimensional. Each character gets a trait rather than a fully-developed personality and if we are going to spend a substantial amount of the running time listening to them talk we need a reason to be invested in their journey. Kong: Skull Island’s screenplay never gives us that opportunity.
Narratively and structurally, the movie falls completely flat but Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong should be commended for their aesthetics. The movie has a retro 1970s look to it, which is engaging even when the adventure story is not.