There’s something about watching people and cities getting decimated by giant monsters that strikes a primal chord with me. King Kong, Godzilla, and all of his wonderful friends. I love ’em all. While the performances, filmmaking techniques, and especially the effects haven’t aged well over time, there’s a timeless quality to all of these films that instantly place me within that time period. Are they ridiculous? Sure, but for giant monster movies, they mostly did exactly what they needed: show these monsters destroy cities and fight other monsters. The key, however, is how well it’s done.

In Kong: Skull Island, the year is 1973 and government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) is obsessed with locating and mapping out the fabled Skull Island. He recruits Vietnam war veteran Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his team to lead an expedition through the island. They bring Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, for some reason, too. When they arrive, things go awry as everyone’s favorite 200 foot high ape does not like uninvited guests and absolutely wrecks them. Stranded and separated, the two groups of survivors are hunted by the island’s horrible creatures, as they try to escape.

This is one of those films where it just is what it is. When you go into a King Kong movie, or really into any monster movie, there’s one thing you want to see: watch that monster destroy stuff. We certainly get that in spades. Once the troops arrive on the titular island and all hell breaks loose, I had a fun time, but for both the right and wrong reasons. For the most part, there’s a lot of enjoyable carnage to be had here. Soldiers getting impaled by giant spider legs, unassuming people getting chowed down on by massive lizards, many hapless saps getting unexpectedly smooshed. Every time the chaos was unfolding, I couldn’t help but have a big smile on my face.

The problem is the film has no idea what it wants to be. There are some interesting elements at play here, but none of them are given the necessary development, nor do they all form into a cohesive whole. Taking place at the tail end of the Vietnam War, there’s a lot of influence from Apocalypse Now and Platoon, making it feel like a genuine war film at times. Soldiers trudge through swamps and lament about wanting to be reunited with their families, but when it’s juxtaposed with a scene of somebody being comically teared to bits by giant flying monsters, it doesn’t gel together at all. I never knew what I was supposed to be feeling, which usually ended up with me being confused. There is one moment that has a dramatic build up and comedic pay off, but I couldn’t tell what the filmmakers were going for anywhere else. It feels like a genuine horror film in one scene, shifts to a war film the next, and then into screwball comedy. My mouth was literally agape during some scenes, I seriously could not believe what I was witnessing. It just didn’t make any sense.

There’s no tension, or build up to anything. Things just happen. Characters will be having a serious dialogue scene, and then a monster will swoop in, kill somebody off, kicking off an action scene. Nobody seems to care when anybody else dies, other than Samuel L. Jackson, and that’s only because his character only exists to move the plot forward. I was actually quite impressed with his performance, because when he’s not reciting dialogue written by Quentin Tarantino, he has a tendency of phoning in his performances. Maybe it was the way his character was written, being one of two with any depth at all, but I really bought into his “crazed soldier wants to avenge his fallen men” demeanor. While his motivations did get kind of contrived near the end, it was when his character was on screen where I was the most invested and where I actually sort of cared. John C. Reilly is the standout star, channeling his inner Dr. Steve Brule. He steals every scene he’s in, not just in the comic relief aspect, but in the dramatic aspects as well. He’s another emotional core to the movie that they have you latch onto, but he’s still relegated to a supporting role.

It’s a shame that the filmmakers overstuffed this film with so many useless characters, because they do nothing but take focus off of the actual interesting aspects of the film. They try to make each character distinct, but if there weren’t dozens to juggle in the first place, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson have absolutely nothing to do here, with no discernible characteristics, or real personalities. They just feel like a lame attempt at star power. Brie Larson is a fantastic dramatic actress, as she proved in 2015’s Room, but looked uninvested during any action set piece here. The absolutely atrocious editing, some of the worst I’ve seen in a big blockbuster film, didn’t help matters either. There’s no flow to the shots, or sequences. There was one edit where I swear a line of dialogue got cut off mid word. It was astonishing to see a big budget film like this so haphazardly stitched together. It almost felt like this was a three hour long epic, but they heavily trimmed it down. It’s even more evident that Kong himself doesn’t have much to do in the actual movie itself, other than be there to fight the occasional beast.

This all feels like it was a big mess from the start. Honestly, though, a lot of these “world building” films end up as huge messes, because the filmmakers put the intentions of franchise building over needing an actual good film. A King Kong film seems like a pretty simple film to get right, as evidenced by the classic 1933 version. You just need a giant ape to wreck stuff, with some well developed human characters to balance out the spectacle with some emotion. Kong: Skull Island certainly gives us the former, none of the latter, and runs off with the rest into many insane directions. This is the definition of a film made by a committee and nobody else.


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