This past weekend Warner Bros. made the second entry in their monster series with Kong: Skull Island (2017). After reinvigorating audience interest in monster films with Godzilla (2014), Warner Bros. has decided to move forward with an entire universe where audiences can watch gigantic CGI monster wrestle with one another. While Godzilla at least made a lackluster attempt at combining character development with spectacle, Kong: Skull Island is nothing more than a series of fairly interesting sequences thinly woven together by stagnate characters and a plot line that is barely thicker than “there is a monster lets shoot at it for two hours.”
Set during the twilight of the Vietnam War, monster hunter/scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) travels with a team composed of military personnel and civilians to an uncharted island where they come across Skull Island, the home of Kong, an ape the size of a skyscraper. After dropping bombs on the island, half of the military escort is killed by Kong while those that are alive are split into small groups. For the remainder of the story, the film’s characters make the trek to the other side of the island while battling other exotic creatures. As mentioned, Kong relies heavily on its spectacle. With Kong, it is clearly understood that the film was not made to make audiences leave the theater with any new thoughts or ideas, but instead meant for them to escape from the real world and watch big CGI monsters punch each other. During these sequences, Kong is entertaining at moments and the audience is swept away by the spectacle, but largely the sequences as a whole are forgettable. While each of the battle sequences are diverse in the way they are fought due to Kong fighting different opponents in each, there is nothing particularly unique about the fights themselves in the way the action unfolds, or in the way they are shot. As a result, the audience is left unsatisfied as they realize Kong brings nothing new to the table in terms of spectacle.
If Kong was meant to rely on its spectacle for success and that failed, one could only imagine the travesty its story was. In terms of setting, the first act of Kong does a very good job in capturing the time period in which it takes place and making sure that the audience understands the film is the combination of a Vietnam War and monster film. The only issue is this is not contained to just the first act and as the film goes on the filmmakers continually push the fact that the film is still set in 1970’s Vietnam. After the tenth Apocalypse Now (1979) inspired shot of soldiers running through colored smoke while listening to a soundtrack that could appropriately by called “Vietnam War Film Greatest Hits” the whole setting of the film begins to feel forced as it is constantly rubbed in the audience’s face.
The forced aesthetic combined with the film not knowing if it is a drama or comedy, quickly wears on the audience as they question whether or not the film is self-aware and satirical or if the writers, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly and John Gatins, are really that inept at storytelling. The real travesty of Kong’s story however is the wasted cast which combined has three Oscar nominations, fourteen golden globe nominations and no character development. Other than now believing in monsters, none of the characters within the film change in anyway over the course of the plot as there character arc could not be flatter. Even if they did change, the audience would not even be aware, as there is barely any time spent on separating the characters from the archtypes they represent. At times, the writers become aware their characters are empty and do allot some scenes for characters explain their backstory, but these stories seemingly have no effect on the character’s actions in the film.
If there already were not dozens of film’s that already fit the bill, Kong: Skull Island would be the perfect textbook case for a spectacle first film that is somehow devoid of spectacle. The film’s talented cast makes due with the script they were given, but largely are wasted by a film who’s real stars are its CGI monsters and the fact that it takes place in 1970’s Vietnam. When watching the film there is definitely a coherent plot and it is by no means messy, it is just stretched very thin to the point of it not existing. While the argument could be made that monster movies should just be fun to watch and not bogged down by melodrama, Kong: Skull Island isn’t even fun to watch just for its action. As a result Kong: Skull Island receives 1 out of 5 reels from Celluloid Cinema.
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