Monster films typically pit humans against an immeasurably powerful force, and the resulting carnage is what constitutes a movie. Here the real drama is not the power, size, strength, or awesomeness of the monster, but how the human factor reacts to the monster. There have been fascinating examples of this, the original King Kong film, Gareth Edwards’ 2010 Monsters (even his underrated adaptation of Godzilla I found quite interesting), and Alien all use the monster device to explore a psychology that is uniquely human. Jordan Vogt-Roberts new Kong film Kong: Skull Island, doesn’t delve into psychology insofar as it fetishises and hero worships the monsters it is inhabited with.
The dialogue is never consequential, and scarcely believable, even in the hands of the more than competent cast. Brie Larson emerges relatively unscathed, and Samuel L Jackson leaves having done his job of just saying cool shit (“I am the cavalry” is a personal highlight, as is his reciting of the myth of Icarus as the helicopters brave a storm), but by and large the cast flail with the unbearably unnecessary and cliched dialogue. The movie, and all its insufferably arduous plot, are geared towards displaying the monsters of skull island in all their glory.
This may be a noble cause, if the monsters themselves were handled with any grace or care. We see Kong within 2 minutes of the film starting, there is no mythology, no secret to him, he is left out to us by the film like a naked cadaver: the shock value is instantly lost, as it is with all the other monsters in the film, even the nefarious skull crawlers. There is violence to punctuate the end of sentences, violence as a comic tool, about a third of the way in to the film we realise Vogt-Roberts instigates violence to make sure we are still listening to what he has to say, which, unfortunately, is very little.
The only psychological investigation of note is the character of Preston Packard, played by Samuel L Jackson, whose fierce determination to exterminate Kong draws back to his nation’s failure in the Vietnam war. The futility of his mission is laughable, but we see him as representative of all the raging id and fragile masculinity of figures of war after having come home from their battles empty handed. He craves not peace but victory.
There are many missed opportunities throughout the film: Tom Hiddlestone, perfectly able actor that he is, does little except look cool and say cool things, the casting of Jing Tian seems like pure tokenism at best, and for all the pain and suffering we infer from Bill Randa, he seems purely in the film as a plot device, and is written with less complexity than even the most meagre plot device demands. And there are just too many stupid things in this film to take it seriously, especially when the film ends and we’re asked to believe we just witnessed an emotional climax. The other soldiers, not blinded by bloodlust like Packard, cannot be expected in a reasonable world to have followed him into battle to exterminate a seemingly indestructible monster, and we can’t honestly believe a stoic, spiritual indigenous tribe really accepted someone as talkative and restless as Hank Marlow into their fold? The mind boggles.
The appeal of this film must lie in witnessing Samuel L Jackson go on another round of saying cool shit, and if the film was condensed into a highlight reel of his best lines, I’m sure it would be a worthy watch, but otherwise this is a disappointingly shallow and insipid foray into a genre that, whilst not without potential, has always suffered from an abundance of efforts such as this.