Overview: A group made up of scientists, soldiers, and a photographer travel to an unmapped island, where they encounter all manner of monsters. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 118 minutes.
Starting From the End: I’m one of those cantankerous elitists who doesn’t like post-credits scenes. They are almost always just commercials for future franchise installments. I have never watched a movie that would become one of my favorites and wanted to think about another movie any time soon after. Great movies make you want to spend time with them, thinking and rewatching. And all movies should want to be great movies. Otherwise, they’re just selling me a ticket. If a movie yields its position in my mind to an unfilmed movie immediately after its completion, well, that isn’t exactly evidence of confidence or quality. It feels like evidence that I’m just being scammed by an invisible salesman.
I’m not sure I have ever been as disheartened by a post-credits scene as I was by the one after Kong: Skull Island.
Fortunate Son: Jordan Vogt-Roberts is the latest in a string of white male filmmakers springboarded by a small scale indie darling feature into the director’s chair for a chapter of a rebooted royalty franchise. The young filmmaker’s modest and charming The Kings of Summer, while well-received, seems a strange and inadequate warm up exercise to prepare a filmmaker for authoring yet another modern upgrade of America’s biggest cinematic monster. And if this running model of patriarchal hyper-promotion wasn’t already in question after a string of mixed results before this year, the frayed wires and creaking gears within Kong: Skull Island should be enough to force consideration of a new model to allow filmmaking talent and vision to develop and catch up to the scope and ambition of a remake hungry industry.
Cinema done right is an experience of seeing and hearing, not an experience of having and consuming. And as often as we lose this principle in consumer driven filmmaking, Gareth Edwards seemed to embody it with his 2014 Godzilla, the film with which Skull Island hopes to build a franchise and, in my opinion, the best modern blockbuster that isn’t Fury Road. Edwards used technical invention and artistic vision to frame human futility in relative perspective against cinema’s most looming giant. But this time around, with the second chapter of Warner Bros. Picture’s presumed series of legendary giant monster films, any innovation is employed in a quick introduction to the giant primate.
There is some promise in an early sequence that sees Kong do battle with a fleet of helicopters, but thereafter, any reverence that Vogt-Roberts holds for the legendary beast is undetectable in the structure of his story or the construct of his frame. Most of the shots of Kong establish his largeness by having him being big near big things or being big standing over little people. There’s a hollowing effect in this impatient lack of exploration, a sort of dispirited final product that uses the stunning landscape lensing of brilliant cinematographer Larry Fong as a stage for dispassionate cartoon wrestling matches. One sequence in particular sees Kong do quick battle with what seems to be a giant octopus, but the fight offers a complete lack of screen magic, decent CGI wrapped in bad CGI for less than a minute before Kong does a simple finishing move and walks away.
It’s stupefying that a King Kong movie made with a nearly 200 million dollar budget in an era of unprecedented effects technology can wind up being the least awe-inspiring of any King Kong film to date. And the margin is not narrow.
Run Through the Jungle: But what does it all mean? Well, the script for Vogt-Roberts film, penned by a team of screenwriters that includes Dan Gilroy of Nightcrawler fame and Max Borenstein who helped author Edwards’ Godzilla, seems superficially to have lofty ambitions. Specifically, Skull Island seeks to be a metaphoric Vietnam War movie played out in narrative parallel to Vietnam (the film takes place in 1973, just before America’s withdrawal). This ambition is anything but subtle. Half the characters are soldiers who have just finished their tour in the war. Firebombing weapons are central to the story. The film unleashes two separate Creedence Clearwater Revival cues (a staple in Vietnam movies, good and bad). There are scenes of fetishistically observed self-sacrifice and David Ayer-level adoration of soldier brotherhood. There’s even a contrived through line of a letter written by a soldier to his son in which the repetition of “Dear Billy…” aims for a sort of The Things They Carried-style prose poetry. But even with some of the film’s top shelf talent used almost exclusively to deliver editorial text—Brie Larson plays an anti-war photographer and Samuel L. Jackson plays a war-hungry Lieutenant Colonel—it isn’t clear how the film feels about war even in a general sense. Scene to scene, Skull Island seems to think that war is bad, constant, necessary, natural, and heroic. (If you liked last year’s Hacksaw Ridge and you like basic ass monsters, boy, do I have the film for you).
And even then, each of those contrasting viewpoints are given sacrifice to most of their subjects finding absurd creature deaths. If Vogt-Roberts films anything with cinematic confidence and glee in Skull Island, it’s the death scenes; imagine the pterodactyl scene in Jurassic World happening at least a dozen times in one movie (in one case, an actual clone of that divisive scene). There are times when I was sure that characters were being invented mid-movie just to allow for another over-the-top kill. It feels like there are more deaths than characters, somehow.
Then again, this could just be a result of the film’s thinly-sketched character work. As Hank Marlow, a soldier marooned on Skull Island for nearly three decades, John C. Reilly earns a few laughs for his trademark comedic brand of manchild goofiness, but credit for characters and performances runs out pretty quickly further down the cast list. For all of the credit I’ve given Gareth Edwards for making Godzilla look so physically large, I should repurpose that level of praise to credit Vogt-Roberts for somehow making John Goodman seem so narratively small as Bill Randa. Likewise, after we meet renegade James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) in a great introductory fight sequence, the lead isn’t given a chance to serve up an ounce of charm. As Houston Brooks and Glenn Mills, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell follow up their standout and electrifying turns in Straight Outta Compton as wasted stock characters. A comparison of Godzilla, a film that drew its own share of criticism for its uncomplicated character work, and Kong: Skull Island is one that instructs on the difference between functional insignificance and amateur under-development.
Overall: It makes sense that Kong: Skull Island ends with a final shot and a post-credits scene that promise future releases in a series that we already know is building to a fanboy fantasy matchup of Godzilla and Kong. I’m sure there are some consumers who might still be excited after Vogt-Roberts’ disappointing film, people who might see these subtle commercials and say, “I can’t wait!” But, of course, we probably won’t have to. As long as there’s a hungry fanbase ready to consume without scrutiny and an untested director willing to accept the pressure position of just keeping the product on the conveyor belt, the next movie will likely come before we have time to forget this one or to even measure how very forgettable it is.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures