The first appearance of King Kong in “Kong Skull Island” happens only a couple minutes into the opening scene. From there, the iconic movie monster makes the most of his frequent reappearances. Everything about the great ape works — his appearance, his personality and especially his ability to squash a helicopter with a single fist.
With so much amazing Kong action, why does “Skull Island” still feel like a movie that desperately needs more of him?
Blame it on the humans. Despite stellar onscreen talent, including Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman and Oscar-winner Brie Larson, “Skull Island” has no clue how to develop or balance its huge cast of characters. Sure, they serve as food for the island’s abundant supply of giant insects and prehistoric beasts, but they still recite aimless, clunky dialogue between the mayhem.
To the credit of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team of writers, the movie manages to get all the core characters on the mythical island within 20 minutes, and the gee-whiz introduction to the environment is swiftly interrupted by a raging gorilla.
In those opening minutes, the film’s major players enter with single, simple traits or motivations. Goodman is the scientist trying to prove monsters are real, Jackson plays the military leader itching for a fight, and Hiddleston stars in the lead role of “Awesome Tracker.” He’s introduced as a sarcastic action superhero, then he never actually does or says anything of interest for the remainder of the film.
Larson, Oscar-winner for “Room,” plays an anti-war photographer. She takes pictures. Lots of pictures.
The movie takes place in 1973, so expect a barrage of on-the-nose musical cues and “Apocalypse Now” references. It matters less when Kong starts fighting big scary monsters.
“Skull Island” suffers from too many single-trait characters, the above noted ones and the dozen or so others that linger in the awkward space between expendable “red shirts” and people we’re supposed to care about. When one of them suffers a horrific fate (about every 10 minutes), the feeling is, “Oh, poor guy!” followed immediately by, “Oh, well.”
For about half the running time, the movie separates the cast into two groups, making for a narrative slog where the film’s opposing ideologies spend too much time apart. Jackson, apparently going full Col. Kurtz, wants to kill King Kong, whereas Hiddleston and Larson just want to leave the big guy alone. A better screenplay would utilize that natural tension to create narrative-driving character moments. Instead, Jackson barks orders to his obedient troop, and the other group builds a boat. Larson takes pictures. Lots of pictures.
One good character resides on “Skull Island” in the form of John C. Reilly as a spacy World War II pilot who’s been stranded on the island for decades. Reilly not only provides desperately needed comic relief, but he also creates a three-dimensional character with a compelling reason to escape the island. Vogt-Roberts at least understood the character’s appeal, as Reilly essentially becomes the film’s human protagonist once he’s introduced around the midway point. Hiddleston’s too busy staring off into space.
Other than Reilly and the occasional burst of rage from Jackson, the humans become a drag to “Skull Island.” Too bad, because Kong and his monster adversaries jolt the film with energy and spectacle. Because this giant ape factors into a new, shared monster movie universe (he will fight Godzilla sometime in 2020), Kong manages to avoid his tragic fate atop the Empire State Building, and his characterization and behavior adds flavor to varied fight sequences. He’s the true star of the movie, even though he kills a bunch of people on purpose.
Many will venture to “Skull Island” solely for the monster battles, and Vogt-Roberts delivers a good 45 minutes of fantastic smackdowns. There’s certainly more action here than, say, the grim “Godzilla” reboot from 2014, and the script never crumbles into “Transformers” level awfulness. But it still leaves an hour and 15 minutes with mostly boring humans. Larson takes pictures. Hiddleston stares into space. I already forgot John Goodman was in the movie.
Tyler Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.