Kong: Skull Island (3D) (2017) (Review)

Following the success of Fox's Logan last weekend, multiplexes will hope the goodwill of the early-blockbuster season will continue with Kong: Skull Island, a 70s-set monster thrilled film from director Jordon Vogt-Roberts in his debut feature. Intended to restart/start (depending on who you ask) a monsters universe aptly titled MonsterVerse - somewhat akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Harry Potter series - Skull Island reintroduces the mighty King Kong in his first appearance on our screens in almost 12 years, assembling a talented ensemble to combat Skull Island and the monsters it holds. With the all-year round blockbuster becoming a real thing now, has Kong: Skull Island throws down the gauntlet for this year's crop of tentpole enthusiasts or is an all-monster, no-brain brawl?

In need of a tracker, former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired by government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) to guide an expedition to map out 'Skull Island', a previously uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Helicoptered by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and joined by pacifist photojournalist Mason Waver (Brie Larson), the team soon learn Skull Island isn't the uninhabited land they expected. It's a pretty impressive cast, with Hiddleston, Jackson, Goodman and Larson joined in supporting roles by the likes of John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and John C. Reilly. Oh, and a 60 tonne gorilla.

Kong: Skull Island is a film that understands the allure of putting a massive gorilla on screen and letting it smash the place up. Really, it acts only as a vehicle to allow such CGI to get to work, as well as re-introducing a towering and iconic monster such as King Kong back to our screens. Without a doubt, you have seen all of this before, most likely in the midst of a story with stronger connectivity and more cohesion regarding the  'in-between' moments, yet for those craving a white-knuckle thrill ride of destruction and annihilation, Kong: Skull Island will tide you over until the summer blockbuster season really kicks in. It's almost admirable that Skull Island places so much emphasis on fun here, with the 118 minute runtime storming by in a whirlwind of effects and excitement, managing a genuine intensity throughout despite a fairly predictable outcome. It dispatches characters quickly and inventively, covers enough genres to keep varied audiences interested (seriously, we're talking action, thriller, horror, comedy and just a hint of romance) and structured so you are never waiting too long before the next set piece. Vogt-Roberts finds some interesting ways to engage you with each passing 'human vs predator' sequence, showcasing the impressive locations with oomph, with one scene - setting the gorilla, drenched in blue moonlight hues, against the humans, surrounding by burning embers and fire - especially effective. It's an absolute joy to watch on a visual level and complete thunderous fun.

With such great action and a terrific ensemble, it is such a shame that the script is so weak and can't afford the film more than the very basic character developments and dialogue. Despite featuring three screenwriters (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly), said dialogue is somewhat woeful, with an embarrassing use of conventions and cliches, inspiring very little during the B-plot strand that simply ambles around until the next thrilling gorilla sequence is due. It places a couple of genuinely idiotic moments (our lead running through and fighting in a gas cloud completely unaffected, in a scene that feels almost entirely ripped from the latest Ghostbusters, minus the stupidity) throughout that threaten to rip all the fun from under its feet. Its populating characters are unbelievably bland and one-dimensional, even with a talented cast at the film's disposal (particularly Brie Larson - SHE'S AN OSCAR-WINNING ACTRESS FOR GOODNESS SAKE, is something I wanted to shout at the screen on numerous occasions). It never concerns itself with going deeper into the thematic sensibilities which would offer an abundance of ideas to explore, all ignored and causing the film to boil down to the age old-saying in film critique - 'it's all style, no substance'; it's all head but no heart or soul. One element the screenwriting trio do nail though is the comedy, as it really sparks with some genuinely humorous moments - although there are a couple of instances where the laughs are unintended...

Skull Island's political backdrop does the film no favours and, despite the pre-credits sequence, adds so little to proceedings - but looking it at it purely as a 70s set action-thriller, it manages to carve out its own identity. It's bouncy, era-defined soundtrack may be a little emphatic at times but it makes it rather charming at the same time, hinting at the uneasy subtext the film so eagerly strives for far more efficiently than its Vietnam-setting. Henry Jackman's score is effective, underpinning the battle scenes particularly well and fuelling an intensity that is found throughout. Kong is a spectacle, with the 3D conversion accentuating the visual feast on more than a couple of occasions; that said, you'll probably get just as good an idea out of the 2D version if you want to avoid splurging on the 3D charge - but I would recommend finding it on the biggest screen, in either version.

At the tail end of the Oscar season - a time in which the cinema is bursting with tremendous craftsmanship and astounding artistry - Kong comes roaring through with a real change in pace and tone. While I'd pick almost any of those Oscar contenders over a second visit to Skull Island, and its pre-Summer blockbuster window is a god send as this would otherwise get lost in the hustle and bustle of sequels and superheroes, it's difficult to deny the charm of Kong: Skull Island. The glossy set pieces it swings between and the exciting action and effects do just about enough to engage and the balance of genre elements works in an otherwise uneven piece. It's trifle approach to the script (most notably the script and characters) threatens to cancel out some of the joy of the unfolding thrill ride but you'll be able justify a watch if it takes your fancy one wet afternoon.


Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a mixed bag: on one hand it is fuelled by terrific set pieces, thrilling action and top-notch effects, but a weak script, too many cliches and poor character development prevent blockbuster greatness.

Highlight: The first act, once we head to the Island, is really terrific. Nothing quite lives up to the destruction of the helicopters at the gorilla's hands.