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‘Kong: Skull Island’ Is an Expensive, Lame Attempt at B-Movie Magic

Despite a blockbuster budget, the new King Kong movie provides nothing but low-rent entertainment. Shouldn’t we expect more?

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

One of the wilder celebrity Instagram posts in recent memory appeared on January 31, when Brie Larson took to the app to promote Kong: Skull Island. “I make movies as a form of activism,” wrote Larson, who plays an anti-war photographer in the film. “I’m proud to play Mason Weaver in @kongskullislandmovie because she represents the many journalists who risk their lives everyday to share with us the truth.”

All this for a gorilla movie? Well, OK.

In fact, there go my feelings about the movie itself. It isn’t so much that Kong: Skull Island takes itself too seriously. Larson’s Up Close & Personal–core Insta-posing notwithstanding, this is at the very least a movie that respects us enough to be terribly written, free of all the constraints of complex character development, writerly ideas, or genuine political subtext — things it couldn’t pull off. Movie spectacles are at their best when their scripts are at their worst and the images and mood can do all the work. That’s the case for the very best B-movies — especially monster movies such as the original King Kong (1933), with its iconic stop-motion reconstruction of a hairy behemoth atop the Empire State Building. It ought to be the case for Kong: Skull Island, too, which, despite its reported $190 million budget, is very much a movie in the original’s image. Looks-wise, the movie is stylish and expensively imagined — but its ironic taste for reference-heavy cheese reveals where its heart is. Kong: Skull Island isn’t a B-movie — but with its intentionally bad writing and jarring lack of cohesion, it lamely pretends to be one.

It all takes place on Skull Island, uncharted fictional terrain in the South Pacific notorious for how many planes and ships have gone missing there. It’s “a place where myth and science meet,” as one character puts it, which is why Monarch — a secret government program that tracks massive unidentified terrestrial organisms — is eager to explore it. That, and the fact that they believe the island is run by a huge ape. Bill Randa (John Goodman), who’s running the project, and who believes he once had an encounter with Kong when he was in the Navy, puts the challenge this way: “This planet doesn’t belong to us.”

That’s a fun excuse to supersize literally everything, from Kong himself, to the other mega-creatures on the island (spiders, ants, buffalo — you name it), to the size and scope of the movie’s expansive action scenes. It’s set in 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War, and is stacked with stock movie characters from the era — a crazed Nam lieutenant colonel played by a hilariously angry Samuel L. Jackson, who wants to kill Kong; Larson’s anti-war photographer; a washed-up bohemian ex-soldier who Monarch hires as a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston); and a John C. Reilly character who’s been stuck on Skull Island since accidentally landing there during World War II.

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

They’re why the movie works. What’s sort of funny, and distinctly trashy, about Skull Island is that it completely, and very knowingly, lacks logic. Larson emerges from a helicopter crash unscratched and model-pretty. Hiddleston removes his gas mask while surrounded by poison gas — and lives! It’s the stuff classic cheap-o monster movies are made of. But those movies were bad (by which I mean good) because that’s all they could afford to be. That was their magic — and you can’t reproduce it on a $190 million budget. So why try? Skull Island can afford to be whatever it wants, so it’s a little odd that, rather than making a movie that’s as modern as its CGI, we’re stuck with a pricey rehash of old trash.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its pleasures. The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, has a nice handle on the actors, whose line deliveries make the best of bad writing. They aren’t winking, but the editor, who keeps us skipping merrily through the bullshit so we can focus on the action, certainly is. Vogt-Roberts’s Kong, meanwhile, is unusually imposing and preternaturally smart. Watching him fight, whether as he’s engulfed in flames or while he’s swatting trees at helicopters, filled me with momentary glee.

I’m a little overwhelmed, though, by the constant overwhelmingness of it all. With that script and that budget, all the movie really has a chance to be is big. And big it is, sometimes to its credit. Who doesn’t love the thought of a vengeful Samuel L. squaring off with King Kong? Yet for most of Skull Island’s runtime I wished I was watching a bad movie that knew it was bad — that longed to be bad — rather than an OK movie in a shitty movie’s clothing. You can sense that it’s what the movie studios think we want, rather than a movie that lives up to what the studio is capable of. And as a monster movie with a monster budget, it’s prone to make the mistake of conflating spectacle with grandeur. Vogt-Roberts has a knack for that. Next time, though, give him a Marvel movie.