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Kong: Skull Island - Review

Kong: Skull Island

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

BIG on spectacle but short on nuanced characterisation or coherent plotting, Kong: Skull Island is a deeply flawed but somehow still enjoyable romp that entertains in spite of its shortcomings.

Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts, who made a splash with his acclaimed independent debut feature The Kings of Summer, directs in a giddy, non-stop fashion that all too frequently places style above substance. Yet while some of that style is extremely eye-catching, from the use of location to the special effects, it makes you wonder what could have been achieved had a little more attention been paid to other areas.

Envisaged as the first step towards a potential crossover movie with Godzilla, in which the secret government agency Monarch plays a key role, this sets things up in a post-Vietnam 1973 as said government agency – led by John Goodman’s shadowy William Randa – puts together a group of scientists and soldiers to explore a newly photographed mystery island in the middle of the ocean.

Heading this expedition is Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, an ex-SAS man turned war-ravaged mercenary, and Samuel L Jackson’s Preston Packard, a similarly embittered Lieutenant Colonel who leads the Sky Devils helicopter squadron. While along for the ride are the likes of Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver, an anti-war photojournalist, and various soldiers looking just to go home (including Toby Kebbell and Shea Wigham).

Once they arrive on Skull Island, however, they find themselves totally ill-equipped and under-prepared to battle the creatures that exist there, which range from the fiercely protective King Kong to the underground dwelling Skullcrawlers. It’s up to a World War II veteran (John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow), who has spent the past 28 years stranded on the island, to lead them to safety and potential rescue.

With such a big and talented cast at his disposal, it’s a shame that Vogt-Roberts doesn’t do more with them. But one of the main failings of Skull Island is just how unremarkable his principal set of characters are.

Kong: Skull Island

Hiddleston isn’t afforded anywhere near enough screen-time to create a memorable leading man, deprived of the opportunity to tap into the complex, battle-scarred morality surrounding his character, while Oscar-winner Larson fares even worse, struggling to break free from the traditional damsel-in-distress trappings of the genre as a whole. Sure, she has a quick mouth early on but for someone who supposedly revels in her ability to be a trouble-maker and a first-rate photo-journalist, she quite often forgets to take any pictures and quite often needs a helping hand from either her male co-stars or Kong himself.

Goodman’s company man is also thinly sketched and ultimately wasted, while the likes of Kebbel and Wigham work hard to make something of their characters with limited material only to find themselves short-changed by the wobbly nature of the narrative. For this, Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein have to take a lot of the blame for their screenplay, which only fleetingly offers any complexity or social comment (apart from one humdinger of a line about the current state of Washington).

Indeed, it says much about the talents of Samuel L Jackson and John C Reilly that they do, at least, seem to be having fun with their roles, with the former mixing some of his trademark attitude with a Colonel Kurtz style journey into madness, and the latter hamming it up to humorous effect as the WWII veteran who nevertheless still makes you care about his plight.

On the plus side, Vogt-Roberts and his design crew do deserve credit for creating an island that’s chock full of grotesque creatures, which continually keep viewers on their toes, as well as making good use of the period setting and the lavish locations (which extend from Hawaii to Vietnam). And there are one or two action sequences – including a gas-mask samurai set-piece and a Kong showdown with helicopters – that genuinely exhilarate. It’s obvious that Apocalypse Now was a major influence given the sheer number of times it is nodded to.

But even then, the director could have employed a better mix of bravado and restraint given that his film lacks any real tension. Rather, Vogt-Roberts just keeps bombarding viewers with one visual assault after another, seldom keeping his camera still long enough to really allow audiences to catch their breath.

Peter Jackson’s far superior – if admittedly lengthy – King Kong allowed for a much greater emotional connection to its characters, with Kong himself a heart-breaking central figure. Here, Kong feels like a brooding, moody beast who seldom gets to interact with those around him. If anything, he’s just there to fight. But that, too, feels like a missed opportunity.

If it’s B-movie style thrills with an A-list cast and a superior budget that you’re seeking, then Skull Island does deliver disposable entertainment that passes the time inoffensively enough. But given the talent and budget involved, it could have been a lot better.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs
UK Release Date: March 8, 2017