The video essayist nerdwriter has a video essay about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that caught fire and makes a lot of sense about why it’s such a mess of a film (albeit a mess I honestly love). In a nutshell, Zack Snyder and the other primary authors of the film are not very much interested in providing a solid narrative as much as they are instead interested in providing “MOMENTS”. Those big notable images that catch the eye whose main purpose is to make any given audience member who can just come in interested in spectacle over storytelling (or say more into storytelling of big moments rather than the patient type that builds up to those big moments) to go “that’s so fucking cool”. I’m not normally in alignment with nerdwriter (I’m certainly not aligned with his somewhat negative reception to Dawn of Justice, though I think it has hella problems) but I think he has a point about that MOMENTS argument. I find it, as consequence, of little surprise that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Kong: Skull Island are both shot by the same talented cinematographer, Larry Fong, because almost 30 minutes into Kong: Skull Island, I got the vibe it was going to be one of those MOMENTS type of movies and sure, enough it turns out to be exactly that, more interested in looking cool and evoking awesomeness rather than actually turning into a really compelling narrative beyond a group of people are stuck on an island that’s trying to eat them all. Which is a simple enough narrative for a King Kong picture to satisfy me if Kong: Skull Island didn’t try to complicate it so much.
Yes, Kong: Skull Island wants to consider itself more than just a great big monster picture by invoking the Vietnam war, making it the most out of place commentary on a historical event in a popcorn tentpole since Star Trek Into Darkness tackled 9/11 and the War on Terror. Both of those are well-meaning but fatal mistakes to Kong: Skull Island, the latter because I’m not quite sure director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knows much about Vietnam except that it’s in the movie Apocalypse Now so if they call back Apocalypse Now, they obviously will call back Vietnam somehow and they’re not wrong kind of, but the movie is so content to let its Apocalypse Now references speak for the ‘Nam element that I don’t think Vogt-Roberts realizes how often the movie picks it up and drops it ad nauseum.
And then there’s its characters that try to give the semblance that the plot is more than just “soldiers on Skull Island getting picked off by monsters” and Kong: Skull Island has two roadblocks to that: one is that so many are faceless cannon fodder entities that the actual named characters just blob into them when they’re quickly picked off violently* and the second being that the actors… I dunno, they mostly feel lazy. Like not into the film at all. At least, they definitely give off a fatigue by the second-half of Kong: Skull Island that makes me realize I don’t care very much about who lives or who dies, save for John C. Reilly’s crazed WWII castaway. Samuel L. Jackson is on angry man autopilot and John Goodman feels utterly asleep, and I don’t think there’s a bigger sign of the laziness of the revolving door of writers (almost certainly with constant studio interference) that there’s no less than two central authority characters that have “revenge” as their motivation. Tom Hiddleston’s attempt at grimness doesn’t prove to be a worthy anchor for our sympathies and Brie Larson is on autopilot for the first time in her great career. Anybody whose problems with Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla** were with its human characters should have a much harsher time with this movie’s faceless and personality-dry soldiers (I hope it’s only the people surrounding me that seem to convince themselves this movie is better than Godzilla and not the popular consensus).
Especially since we spend more time with those human characters than the true star of the film – King motherfucking Kong himself. Still when he’s on-screen in those very MOMENTS I opened talking about, Terry Notary’s motion capture and Toby Kebbell’s facials are enough to give him a beastly, weighty character alongside the designs of every other wonderful bit of fauna – usually large versions of our own world’s beast – and flora, provided by the lush landscape of Hawaii and Australia. They’re not Andy Serkis, but it is some new more volatile and angry version of Kong that throws down (including the movie’s first and best setpiece with him swatting down helicopters in menace). In Kong’s conspicuous absence for much of the film, we get to spend time exploring Skull Island itself and it does have a personality enough as an exotic location with myth attached to it that it is understandable how viewers were able to walk away satisfied in popcorn style. But when I come for Kong, I do come for Kong and when the other things they try to fill that emptiness with – the characters and the Nam stuff – feel like they only widen the void rather than fill it, I can’t pretend this is a satisfying return of a character I love and want to see more of. I’d rather they get it right first before he comes about to face Godzilla, because in this state, he won’t last two rounds.
*And I mean violently… the amount of dismemberment and blood is pushing this PG-13. I swear one of the deaths was an homage to Cannibal Holocaust. CANNIBAL FUCKING HOLOCAUST!
**and may I note how absolutely refreshing, in a film industry where movie universes mean movies are glorified trailers, that neither Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island shoo-in reference to each other in the actual meat of its plot, Skull Island opting simply for a post-credits sequences to set MonsterVerse up.