Perhaps it’s fitting that franchise blockbuster filmmaking eventually eats everything we hold dear, Kong: Skull Island is after all only the most recent example of a long line of baffling monstrosities, repackaging far more interesting films with a modern wink, a glossy polish and a post-credits teaser, but there’s still something so viscerally perplexing about seeing such artistry—in this case of the melodrama meets b-movie horror of Cooper and Schoedsack’s 1933 original, the ferocious psyche meditations of the best Vietnam War cinema and the awe-inspiring spectacle/human tenderness of Spielberg—clumsily churned into such shallow geek fantasy filmmaking.
Following up Gareth Edwards’ deeply underappreciated Godzilla, it’s clear that test audiences won the war for this particular franchise. Gone is the genuinely thrilling and patient showmanship that authentically conveyed the implied mythic allegory of man vs. nature (only referenced superficially here in dialogue), replaced with a tonally bizarre romp filled with troubling, juvenile allegories to the horrors of Vietnam, empty archetypes not even given enough screen time to sell their climactic moments, dull, pre-vis’d-to-death action and a reference-heavy, cartoonish visual style that feels mechanical and forced. The script credited to Derek Connolly, Max Borenstein and Dan Gilory plays almost exactly like three different scripts inelegantly held together with tape, while director Jordan Vogt-Roberts struggles to aestheticize each one into something remotely resembling a coherent whole. The results are… weird and disconcerting, to say the least.Skull Island is not without its pleasures, to be sure. Zack Snyder’s regular cinematographer Larry Fong gets to go batshit with gorgeous deep green-and-orange color grading, and captures a few truly evocative images, like say… a gasmask-wearing Tom Hiddleston wielding a katana through an extravagant toxic smoke, a moment so out-of-nowhere, and so close in resemblance to the construction of action in Snyder’s 300 it’s hard not to unabashedly love it. Even a few of the performances aren’t entirely lost at sea— Sam Jackson and Shea Whigham deliver the best with what they’re given and John C. Reilly spectacularly hams it up accordingly, feeling like the only actor to come prepared for what was ostensibly a movie lost between the absurd tone of b-movies and somberness of war pictures.
As for the rest, however, yikes… Corey Hawkins and Ting Jian are franchise devices, John Goodman delivers the trailer lines he’s there to deliver, and Hiddleston and Brie Larson are both dead-on-arrival with nothing to do beyond looking good while they sweat. Even the character of Kong has very little to actually do, beyond the choice to make him absurdly huge he mostly just hits things that get in his way, which, say what you will of Peter Jackson’s (perhaps too) lovingly crafted remake of the original Kong, he at least managed to translate the romanticism of both the melodrama and the cinematic history (and brought Andy Serkis along, whose motion-capture work is among the most expressive there is) in such a way that dad’s everywhere still cry at that Empire State sequence every single time. There’s nothing that has even a modicum of the sincerity, romanticism or emotionality of Jackson’s epic to be found in Skull Island because why find weight by developing character when you instead can just mine Vietnam War imagery for seriousness and “importance?” Why convey horror in layered, expressive images when you could just include a moment bragging that you sat through Cannibal Holocaust one time? The movies may be getting more expensive, but the filmmaking is getting cheaper.