Senseless "Kong: Skull Island" Gives Monster Movies A Bad Name

All of cinema’s greatest monster mashes have one counterintuitive thing in common: Dynamic human performances. It’s difficult to imagine “Jaws” without Robert Shaw, “Jurassic Park” without Jeff Goldblum,” or “King Kong” without Fay Wray. They and their human co-stars served as crucial counterpoints to the beasts on screen, bringing out the humanity – or lack thereof – in their monstrous foils. Even 2014’s divisive “Godzilla” featured one of the world’s most irresistible actors, even if the film gave his character the heave-ho far too soon.

Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Kong: Skull Island,” captained by indie writer-director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, has the large animal part down cold. Although the movie’s title character is inexplicably as tall as the skyscrapers he’s known to scale, he is nevertheless a gorgeous CGI creation crafted with love and reverence. The big ape is front and center early and often, seemingly in response to the coolly received slow burn of “Godzilla” 2014. (The two films are set in the same cinematic universe.)

The picture’s logline is equally no-nonsense. It is 1973 and a motley team of Americans and Britons assemble to chopper off to a mysterious island in search of adventure.

Shifty government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) and geologist friend Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are in search of something supernatural. War photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is after her next paradigm-shifting image. Ex-British Special Services captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is along for the ride as a hired gun. Rounding out the crew are Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his squadron (Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Thomas Mann, Toby Kebbell, and more), on board as a heavily-armed military escort.

Bad news, part I: These characters are dreadful. You’ve just learned almost as much information about them as the movie imparts over the course of two hours. (Almost. One of them ends up the film’s human villain.) They don’t even qualify as loose sketches, let alone plausible human beings, with the film awkwardly paying off character bits it never even set up. (Allusions to quirks on the part of Wigham’s looseleaf-thin gunner is the most egregious example.)

Hiddleston and Larson in particular contribute a gaping void of charisma to the proceedings. The indifference with which 2015 Oscar-winner Larson delivers a handful of spectacularly clunky one-liners is enough to wonder if post-Oscar dumpster diving has reached a new low. Hiddleston is every bit as boring, though, as if dead set on shouldering the lion’s share of the blame for such an afterthought of a character. For an actor who hit the scene as a devilish charmer in another cinematic universe (Marvel’s), it feels like a huge fall.

Bad news, part II: The movie brings to mind rumors of Warner Bros. hiring a movie trailer company to edit last year’s “Suicide Squad.” The studio just might be at it again. “Skull Island” is a whirling dervish of suboptimal needle drops, unintelligible editing, and total disregard for pacing. Some will credit “Kong: Skull Island” for being fast-paced, juggling its many creatures with a methamphetamine-inspired editing style. In fact, it is not paced so much as it is thrown at us, seemingly cut with a Cuisinart. Vogt-Roberts and his credited editor Richard Pearson indiscriminately wallop us with action, darting from character to character and scene to scene, none of it making any impact at all.

There’s an exception. John C. Reilly’s turn as a World War II veteran Hank Marlow, long marooned on Skull Island, is a fun one. He commits to the goofy quirks of his grizzled character full stop. It’s as if he’s putting on an impromptu clinic for his fellow actors, all of them unaware as to how much fun they could be having despite the limitations of their respective roles. Marlow isn’t much better drawn than any of them but Reilly reinvents the part from the inside out, nearly wresting the entire movie from its utterly blitzed creative team.

Bad news, part III: Cinematographer Larry Fong. Poor Larry Fong. Last year’s “Batman V Superman” cemented the lenser as one of Hollywood’s go-tos for making total bullshit look undeniably stylish. “Skull Island” is no different, dotted with dozens of dazzling shots that mean absolutely nothing, calling to mind a banana stand full of better movies. (The marketing team’s crush on “Apocalypse Now” is entirely unearned.) Fong’s work, aided by an expert colorist, combined with Industrial Light & Magic’s wonderful Kong makes for nice spectacle. But spectacle is not enough when our human proxies are so devoid of anything approaching personality that they’re not even worthy cannon fodder. As a zombie-like Hiddleston faces off against wiry, bloodthirsty beasts known as skullcrawlers, it’s tough to even muster a yawn.

After all, the most wit the movie can muster is a flatly delivered “Is that a monkey?” at the first sight of its giant antihero, muttered by “Fantastic Four” star Toby Kebbell as if held at gunpoint.

Some directors have made the increasingly common leap from indie to blockbuster look feasible. Jordan-Vogt Roberts is not one. His only other film to date, “The Kings Of Summer,” remains everything “Skull Island” is not: Warm, character-driven, lucid. His crack at King Kong makes Peter Jackson’s grossly overlong 2005 attempt look like a dynamo of personality by comparison, setting the bar for future attempts so low that even a newborn Kong might clear it. He might still be king, but something stinks in Skull Island.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 10, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriters: Max Borenstein, Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Jing Tian
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)