There has never been a film with more sunsets than Kong: Skull Island. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ revival of the classic movie monster staple doesn’t care what time it is – if something gnarly is going to happen, it’s going to happen in the silhouette of an enormous red sun. A giant ape, knocking down helicopters. A researcher, being torn apart by bird things. Tom Hiddleston, not really doing anything but looking good anyway.
This endless magic hour speaks to Kong’s greatest strength and weakness. Vogt-Roberts and his three credited screenwriters (including Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy, whose presence can be felt early on in the film’s light jabs at Washington) are willing to sacrifice everything – logic, character, narrative – in service of a stunning image or awesome moment. When that approach works, Kong is a sublime piece of popcorn entertainment, with enough wit and ape-smashing to send me into fits of giggles. When it doesn’t – which is about a third of the running time – we’re left with banal banter and plot for the sake of plot. But, my God, when that giant ape tears apart a giant octopus and eats it like sashimi, the boring parts fall away.
One of the Kong franchise’s great challenges comes from that fact that, like its brother Godzilla, it’s essentially a horror series. As such, the films have to have enough characters so that plenty can act as cannon fodder for the movies’ array of creatures without skimping on people that the audience can latch onto for the human story. Unfortunately, this is where Kong: Skull Island drops the ball early and never picks it back up. While the opening act has fun pulling its eclectic cast together – including John Goodman’s “Hollow Earth” obsessive, Tom Hiddleston’s pretty-boy tracker, Brie Larson’s no-nonsense war photographer, and Samuel L. Jackson’s gung-ho sergeant – it never builds them as any more than sketches. By the mid-point of the film, I was only able to place the characters by their actor’s name. The cast fills in some of the holes of characterization with pure charisma, but, with the exception of Jackson and John C. Reilly as a crazed POW who crashed on the island in WWII, no one rises above the material.
For the most part, though, they don’t need to. One of the things that makes Kong such a distinctly modern monster movie is its fetishisation of Vietnam imagery. Taking cues from the recent nostalgia wave for 80s VHS neon, Vogt-Roberts and his writers take what was once the focal point of the American counterculture and turn it into a “fun” aesthetic. While that’s a bit disconcerting on the surface, the film plays it up to such ridiculous heights that it’s easy to get swept away in the endless Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, the badass flamethrowers, and the endless expanse of terrifying jungle. The ‘Nam nostalgia is, in fact, the driving force and central metaphor of the film, as Jackson’s military figure takes it upon himself to murder the big, misunderstood ape. “We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it,” he says early on. Later, a Nixon bobble-head is the only thing that stays in focus as a helicopter crashes to the ground.
None of that really matters though, because the metaphor becomes muddled with the introduction of giant scary lizard things, and Jackson’s story only takes up half the film. The other half is some half-baked nonsense about building a boat and John C Reilly swinging a samurai sword.
Kong: Skull Island could have been tightened up, its cast could have been minimised, and two stories, could have combined. Ultimately, though, if you want to see King Kong use a boat propeller as brass knuckles against a giant skull lizard, you’ll probably let its flaws slide.