My 8-year old nephew loves kaiju and monster movies, and would love Kong: Skull Island. It is
mostly monster fights. Visually director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is full of fun ideas: Tom Hiddleston in
a gas mask slo-mo macheting pterodactyls against green fog, a heavy machine gunner stationed
on the forehead of a triceratops skull, Kong himself framed by a helicopter door as its passengers
go through the stations of the cross on the way to being eaten by him.
But on an acting and character level, the movie is perverse. Good actors and thousands of
artists on multiple continents came together for something that does not have real characters. Brie
Larson and Hiddleston are actors that can deliver pain and smarm well (each recently in Ben
Wheatley movies which at least had something on their minds) but here they pose repeatedly in
tight tees as they survey the digital effects around them. They get a small Steve Zissou moment
with Kong, but that's about it. Having seen them in better movies, it's shocking to see them deliver
the quips and exposition to gird monster fights alone.
An older hand at exposition is John Goodman, who serves up foreboding dialogue with so
much gravitas it's easy to get sucked into the movie's opening. He plays Bill Randa of the Monarch
Corporation, putting together an expedition with soldiers on their way home from the Vietnam War
in 1973. He doesn't tell them that that their destination, Skull Island, is full of giant monsters of
which he wants to prove the existence. When they drop bombs to bring the title ape out, King Kong
knocks their helicopters out of the air.
The bombing is a recreation of a famous napalm newsreel, centered in actor Shea Whigham's
sunglasses. Cinematographer Larry Fong makes everything look as orange-tinted and green-
enameled as Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam cinema, though of course this film is missing the
regret and moral malaise that shot through those films. It’s been replaced by science fiction-
fantasy. Fong cut his teeth on Lost and shoots some of the same Hawaiian locations (in addition to
Vietnam itself). It looks great, and the monsters are fun. A giant water buffalo, octopus, insect and
spider (the last possibly a nod to one excised out of the original Kong for being too scary) are all
lovingly realized. The only creature misstep are the chief antagonists, the Skullcrawlers, who are
great in one scene but are too much of a generic CGI creation to be the movie's chief villains.
The ensemble cast is a murderer's row with very little to do. John C. Reilly stands out as a
downed WWII pilot who has made the island a home, the lettering on his jacket nodding to his
much more complete and classic Dr. Steve Brule character. Tony Kebbell does double duty as
Kong in motion capture and an ill-fated soldier writing a letter to his child. Whigham is the most
expressive actor in the movie, silently eating a can of beans after watching his
squadmates die. Character actor John Ortiz is ripped apart by pterodactyls. Tian Jing is
presumably one of the more awkward examples of an actor shoehorned into a film to sell it to the
Chinese market: she has no character and seems to speak her lines phonetically. Samuel L.
Jackson gets a hamfisted revenge quest (he wants to blow up Kong for killing his men, while
Hiddleston and Larson quickly side with Kong). Jackson gets lines like "We didn't lose the war, we
abandoned it," "This is one war we're not going to lose," and "These men will not die in vain, I
swear to god."
That, combined with opening titles showing U.S. military buildup from Truman to Nixon, tries to
give the movie a point of view and heft. Drawing on Reilly's friendship with a Japanese pilot who
also crashed on Skull Island after their dogfight ("We took off the uniforms and the war. He became
my brother"), the film tries bridge WWII to Vietnam. "What happened with the war? Did we win?"
Reilly asks. "Which one?" is the response. The script pitches WWII as the good war which sells a
century worth of conflict escalation. That rings true with me, especially in pop culture where WWII
never ends. It also sells the limits of pop. Vietnam among most was long ago accepted as a
mistake, yet its lesson can't seem to leave the movie world and enter our State Department. Told
that pursuing Kong will get them all killed, Jackson says he will not "cut and run," echoing an
infamous line by George W. Bush, when he tried to use an emotional argument to explain why we
should embroil ourselves in a Mideast occupation. The allegory doesn’t fit in with the comic tone of
the film. Jackson mourns his soldiers, but during their deaths the film cuts to things like a Nixon
bobblehead on a dashboard, and from Kong eating a soldier to a soldier eating a sandwich.
The film is also not just a film, but an attempt to further (along with the last American Godzilla)
a shared cinematic universe of monster movies. It ends with an after-credits scene hyping Godzilla,
Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah. Against my better judgment I was a little excited.
But I couldn't help but think about actors and paychecks. What is money worth to a person? Why
show up to a job that is essentially meaningless? The good actors in this film who had about a half-
a-sentence worth of real work to do, can they afford rent? Is a place to sleep worth not being able
to feel fulfilled? If this cinematic universe goes forward, does that mean the survivors here will
disappear from more interesting films?
Movie Review: Kong Skull Island
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Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly