Kong: Skull Island has an endearingly “pop” sensibility to it.
There are moments at which Kong: Skull Island feels more like an evocative theatrical-length montage than a film. This is only the second feature-length film from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and the movie has jarring and disorienting quality to it. Vogt-Roberts saturates the screen with reds and greens, whirls the camera at incredible velocity, and cuts at an impressive tempo. Even dialogue heavy scenes are constantly panning and cutting.
This approach does no favours to the cast. Most of the players in Kong: Skull Island seem to have more trouble finding a consistent character throughline than mythical monsters. Tom Hiddleston seems quite lost for most of the film. Brie Larson probably does the best job of any of the major players, although the rapid-fire editing helps John C. Reilly seem suitably eccentric as the obligatory insane exposition character. Veteran performers like John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson are forced to hold on for dear life.
However, none of this is a problem. For all its flaws, Kong: Skull Island never over-estimates how interesting its human characters are, mostly treating them as a vehicle to get to the promised monster mash. Vogt-Roberts’ direction might seem hyperactive and over-caffeinated, but it understands this. The camera and the cuts are always moving towards the monster, with the characters serving to deliver thematic dialogue and look suitably moody as seventies music plays over montage sequences.
Kong: Skull Island never feels entirely cohesive as a feature film. That is not a fatal flaw. The movie feels weird and ethereal, the audience constantly kept off-balance by the heighten stylistic choices and the gusto with which the movie seizes upon these opportunities. After all, the eponymous island is a place where anything is possible and nothing is as it appears. It feels somewhat fitting that the movie drifts into a loose free-form style driven more by imagery than by story.
Kong: Skull Island feels in someways like a monstrous monster movie, and there’s something quite appealing in that.
In some ways, Kong: Skull Island feels very much like a conscious response to Godzilla. Garth Edwards’ monster reboot made a point to foreground its human characters, which made the movie particularly controversial among genre aficionados. The main attraction was in the title, and so the time devoted to a stock family reunion story felt particularly egregious. More than that, Edwards cycled through a selection of potentially interesting performers in a great cast, but somehow decided that Aaron Taylor-Johnson should be the focus of the film.
Kong: Skull Island seems carefully calibrated to avoid repeating that mistake. The primary characters in Kong are all conscious archetypes, to the point that it is a miracle that any of them even reach into the second dimension. The film’s nominal lead is perhaps the most obvious example, with Tom Hiddleston playing the ex-military team leader Conrad. Conrad is introduced in a dive bar in Siagon, easily winning a bar fight and providing cynical commentary on the ill-fated mission. Inevitably, he proves himself a true leader of men.
Tom Hiddleston seems lost in the role, like a character actor who inadvertently found himself at the centre of a colossal blockbuster. Hiddleston is a fantastic performer, if given the right material. He is generally quite good at calibrating his performance to match the film around him. However, he struggles to fill the shoes of a generic action movie lead. His ruggedness always seems put on, his gruff demeanour somehow less convincing than the impressive computer-generated imagery around him.
A lot of this is down to the edit of the film. There are moments when it feels like director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has discovered that the film is suffering from attention deficit disorder and so has decided to pump it full of sugar. Quick camera cuts serve as punctuation, even in dialogue scenes between two or three performers. Even when characters speak in long shots, there is a tendency to cut quickly in and then jump back out. The result feels almost like the cinematic equivalent of William S. Burrough’s infamous “cut-up” experiments.
Watching Kong, it often seems like the actors might be performing separately from one another; whether that disconnect is a result of time or space. When Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are asked to connect with one another after a helicopter crash, Vogt-Roberts rarely allows them to share the same frame. When Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman get an opportunity to really look one another in the eye after their cards are on the table, the edit makes it seem like both characters are staring into space.
If any actor benefits from this approach to the material, it is John C. Reilly. Reilly is cast in the role of the veteran with actual experience of the island. However, his time growing up on that remote rock surrounded my monsters has clearly taken its toll. Hank Marlow is clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but his craziness is enhanced by all the quick cutting and the strange disconnect. Watching Reilly as Marlow, it increasingly seems like this is how he sees the world, and that Marlow is almost the only sane character.
After all, this disjointed is a conscious choice on the part of Vogt-Roberts. It is not something that happened by accident. Kong even makes a nod to the approach as our heroes explore a sacred space belonging to the natives of the island. Stalagmites have been painted with strange patterns, decoration that seems surreal when the characters first approach. However, as they move clover, the angle shifts. Using depth, these separate illustrations combine to form a single image. There is a sense that Vogt-Roberts is attempting something similar with Kong.
Kong plays very much like a mood piece. It is a film that has a fairly simple story, populated by very simple characters, with very simple rules. However, the richness of the film is rooted in its aesthetics. Kong is a movie that looks stunning and is never boring. Vogt-Roberts conveys the film’s plot largely through montage, through the pairing of evocative imagery with impressive sound design to create a compelling and intriguing tone. Much of the dialogue in Kong is largely redundant, Vogt-Roberts conveying almost everything that needs to be said.
It is an approach that arguably shortchanges the cast, but it very much suits the material. The quick cuts and the hyper-kinetic camera work might make it difficult to engage with any of the characters or performances, but they do keep the audience off-balance. Kong is incredibly hyperstylised, from the repeated use of Dutch angles to the ubiquity of diegetic sound. The movie’s many montage sequences frequently slow down and speed up. Cuts exist within scenes, trimming seconds of normal human behaviour to get quicker to the action.
In fact, Kong repeatedly draws attention to its own unreality. “Hold on to your butts,” Preston Packard advises at one point, in a nod to Samuel L. Jackson’s other iconic monster movie appearance. Marlow repeatedly references his home town of Chicago, a nod to the movie that scored John C. Reilly his first Oscar nomination. Indeed, there are a few references to Mason Weaver’s desire to win a Pulitzer, perhaps a sly acknowledgement of Brie Larson’s status as the only Oscar winner on the cast.
This is particularly apparent in Toby Kebbell’s twin roles on the film. “Is that an ape?” Jack Chapman ask as Kong comes into view. Of course, Kebbell would know; Kebbell played Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and suits up as Kong in this film. Tellingly, it is Chapman who has the first intimate one-on-one encounter with Kong. Kebbell appears in a scene with himself, except that one version of himself is a motion-capture giant ape. There is an endearing and exciting surrealist bent to all of this.
Kong is completely disinterested in immersion or naturalism, which is an approach that fits rather well with the material at hand. And, again, contrasts with Godzilla. This is a story about a bunch of people who go to an island occupied by monsters. It makes sense that it should all seem hyperreal and disengaged from the real world. Kong moves incredibly quickly, thanks to both Vogt-Roberts’ decision to keep the camera moving and the rapid tempo of the cuts. Kong is thrilling and exhilarating.
It also feels playful and fun, in that it finds something new to do with the eponymous giant monkey. King Kong is rightfully iconic, one of the great movie monsters with an arc has permeated pop culture to such a degree that even those people who haven’t seen a King Kong movie understand the expected beats. Kong does an excellent job offering a lot of the expected images of a King Kong film, while eschewing that familiar set-up. Kong feels just similar enough to earlier efforts that it fits, but also just novel enough to hold the audience’s attention.
After all, there are clear connections to be drawn between the expedition organiser Bill Randa and classic showman Carl Denham. Both are characters who mislead an expedition in pursuit of mythic monsters, although Kong provides Randa with a motivation and background that feels distinct enough. Similarly, there are echoes of Ann Darrow to be found in Mason Weaver, the female character who makes an emotional connection with Kong. However, Weaver is very much an updated and contemporary character.
Similarly, Kong makes sure to include images that will resonate with the myth and iconography of King Kong, but in ways that do not feel entirely like retreads. Kong still fights a giant lizard monster, of course, although it is nothing as simple as T-Rex. Kong still finds a way to tangle its eponymous monster in chains, even if it consciously avoids the third act that audiences have come to expect from a King Kong story. It is a very delicate and teasing balance, but Kong consistently stays on the right side of it.
It helps that Kong finds something (relatively) new to say about that giant ape. Taking a page from the Godzilla mythology, Kong positions its monster at the centre of a giant metaphor for mankind’s capacity for warfare. The nuclear bomb is part of that, but not all of it. An excellent opening montage establishes the theme, as does the decision to set the story in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. When Marlow explains that he was trapped on the island during the war, another character asks, “Which one?” Marlow sighs, “Figures.”
Kong might not have a firm grasp on character, but it uses its characters to clearly articulate theme. “We didn’t lose the war,” Packard assures Weaver early in the film. “We abandoned it.” Convincing Conrad to sign on, Randa advises him, “Men go to war because they’re looking for something. If you’d found it, you’d be home by now.” Staring out at the night sky, Conrad confesses, “Nobody comes home from war. Not really.”
It is a familiar theme drawn very broadly, but this demonstrates the advantages of Vogt-Roberts’ looser visual style. If Kong spent more time with these characters, or if the film spent more energy trying to convince the audience to see them as more than archetypes, these heavy and portentous observations would grate. Instead, they add texture. Kong is clearly positioned as an enemy that these solders could never vanquish, the alpha and the omega. One of the smarter smaller touches of the film is the scarring on Kong’s body. Texture.
Vogt-Roberts’ direction consciously plays into this. Some of the movie’s edits and transitions are quite disorientating, particular within scenes. However, the film also conveys quite a lot through transitions between scenes, very skilfully using thematic connections to jump from one concept of character to another. For example, early in the film, the movie cuts from Randa telling Conrad that he must be looking for something straight to Weaver developing images in her darkroom. Visual language and tone is as important as dialogue.
This framing also allows Vogt-Roberts to sample liberally from other genres. Kong is in many ways a Vietnam movie, one that feels particularly indebted to Apocalypse Now. After all, it spends a lot of time on those helicopters dropping ordinance and also features a very import boat journey up-river. The character of Conrad even seems like a shout-out to Joseph Conrad who wrote Heart of Darkness. There is something thrilling about seeing a Vietnam War movie that just happens to feature giant insects and apes.
Indeed, the pulpy nature of the material even allows Kong to land a few very effective blows. At one point, the characters come face to face with a dirt-filled canyon decorated with the bones of once-great creatures. It is a visual that feels like it was ripped from a trashy paperback cover. However, there is a strange power to it. “I’ve photographed enough mass graves to recognise one when I see it,” Weaver reflects, bringing even the most absurd imagery back to that powerful central theme.
This unique juxtaposition allows for some of the movie’s more striking visuals. The movie opens on a playful homage to Hell in the Pacific that is interrupted by more monstrous concerns. There is a raw power in the image of Kong straightening up against the yellow sun in the red sky, his silhouette flanked by approaching helicopters. A giant monkey graveyard becomes a stalking ground. These images are delightful gonzo, the result of a playful monster mash-up that demonstrates the strengths of Vogt-Roberts’ approach to the material.
Kong: Skull Island is a little rocky and uneven, with its human characters never feeling fully formed and occaisonally moving so briskly that the audience is left dizzy. However, there is something to be said for a monster movie in which the monsters look down upon the human characters not so much with rage and frustation, as with befuddlement and pity. Kong is so much bigger than its human characters, as it repeatedly reminds the audience at the climax. That is both is greatest strength and its greatest weakness.