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March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

by Franz Patrick


Kong: Skull Island (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

It probably would have been more appropriate for “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, to have been released in the middle of summer because, for better or worse, it embodies all elements of a blockbuster special and visual effects extravaganza including the sub-genre’s shortcoming: nice to look at but look closer and realize nothing much goes on inside. What results is a watchable action-fantasy, certain to entertain on late-night cable viewings, but it is not for viewers who demand creativity and intelligence alongside suspense and thrills.

Big names are cast in this monster film but the characters might as well have been played by unknowns because not one of the actors manages to inject something extra special to his or her performance. If less familiar performers had been cast instead, at least they would have benefited from the exposure. Instead, otherwise compelling actors familiar with the art of subtlety are reduced to playing extremes: Samuel L. Jackson as the villainous military man, Tom Hiddleston as the quiet hero hired for a job, Brie Larson as a photojournalist who finds humanity in a gargantuan gorilla, and John C. Reilly conveniently provides comic lines.

Just about everything is so expected, so familiar, that I found minimal excitement in a film that is supposed to balance wonder, horror, action, suspense, and eventual catharsis. I wished to know who the characters are outside of their occupations and what pushed them to partake in the mission. What makes he or she interesting other than being on survival mode? What makes he or she worth rooting for (or against) just because he or she means well (or the quite the opposite)? Clearly, these characters are one-dimensional. There is no excuse for a movie with a sizable budget to have a minuscule imagination. Look at how it portrays scientists. They are silent, cowering, often in the background.

For an island that is supposed to be undiscovered—being surrounded by perpetual storms helps—there is a lack of a sense of discovery outside encounters with massive creatures. At one point, the outsiders come across quiet indigenous people covered by paint and jewelry from head to toe. The picture dedicates not one scene in showing a new outsider attempting to make a connection with the curious human inhabitants. The story might have been set in the ‘70s but such is a mere ploy since it fails to capture the essence of that era. Notice that in movies released in the same time period, even in blockbuster films that happen to be set in a strange or new land, there is always an attempt to communicate, to connect, to find a commonality. Not here.

It excels in a few individual scenes, which usually last about five minutes, before forcing us to wait for the next action sequence. Perhaps most impressive is the graveyard scene. Notice how it builds atmosphere and mood. We are awestruck by the mighty skeletons; as the camera lingers on them, we try to imagine corpses that were once there. The yellow-orange dirt highlights the white bones’ surfaces—their cracks, crevices, and holes. All the while we know that something is going to happen soon. It becomes a matter of perfect timing. I felt elated when the execution got it exactly right. At that moment, I caught myself wishing that the entire material functioned on such a high level and on a consistent basis. There are stretches where neither the senses nor the mind is engaged.

“Kong: Skull Island” is not for audiences who demand more than two CGI characters duking it out during the final ten minutes. Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” got it right where this movie got it wrong. In the 1993 classic, there is dimension to the central characters, we get to know some of the creatures up close (sometimes a little too up close), it pushes us to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. It engages us intellectually. We grow to care deeply for our protagonists. Here, I did not care whether they would make it out of the island alive.

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