Kong: Skull Island review - Cliched characters fail to match epic action and franchise-building

Amy West
Kong: Skull Island

As part of Warners' new Monsterverse, Kong: Skull Island sees Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson come face-to-face with the legendary ape, as the franchise gears up to have the latter face an even bigger, and much more, lizard-like threat. Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs while John C Reilly, John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson – and a whole host of ensemble cast members – star.

Kong: Skull Island 6 stars

It's been made very clear in the run-up to Kong: Skull Island's release that the movie will eventually act as a bridge between Gareth Edwards' 2014 outing Godzilla and the future creature feature Godzilla vs Kong in just a few years time. For that reason, it's understandable why it winds up feeling more like a set-up for sequels rather than a solid standalone piece of its own, as it's charged with building on themes and the mythology that were introduced in Godzilla and rolling them out even further.

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With so much ground to cover; establishing Monarch, a secret scientific organisation that tracks down MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and the human race's inferiority complex to name a few, there's unsurprisingly not all that much time left for Kong himself. Exposition duties therefore lie with the human characters' as they attempt to carve out a link between the two iconic monsters.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island sees Monarch officer Bill Randa (Goodman) and his associate Brooks (Corey Hawkins), after they wangle a place on a recon mission, which is being carried out by a science program, in the hopes of making breakthrough discoveries on an uncharted island. To help them navigate the terrain and document the expedition, the pair hire tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), while the US government arranges for Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) and his men to get them all in and out safely.

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But such a task isn't so easy to accomplish when you have an extremely territorial 100 foot ape laying stake over the land, and vicious lizard-like 'Skullcrawlers' challenging him for dominion to contend with.

Kong: Skull Island

Most popular: Kong: Skull Island review - Cliched characters fail to match epic action and franchise-building

With so many characters, it's bizarre that the film refuses to distinguish which of those are its leads. You begin following Randa but as more and more individuals are presented, it becomes unclear who you're meant to concentrate on and it makes it hard to get seriously invested in their fight for survival.

It means that almost all of them feel wishy-washy too – most of all the females. You thought Bryce Dallas Howard's character in Jurassic World was disappointing? At least she – albeit somewhat tenuously – saved the day. Larson's Weaver could literally be lifted right out of Kong: Skull Island and it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference.

So many of her on-screen moments consist of her solely glaring wide-eyed-in-disbelief into the distance from behind a camera, that you can't help but wonder whether she's just seen the woman she thought this character would end up being through the lens. Instead, she basically ends up being Ann Darrow posing as a spunky photojournalist... or so Kong seems to think so anyway. But hey, at least they took the time to pen fake freckles on to her nose and cheeks, that's something right?

Given her [Oscar-winning] talent, Larson does the best with what she's given though. Hiddleston however – whose character is similarly thinly-sketched – doesn't quite sell his as well. Anyone who's seen a few Marvel movies will know that Hiddleston makes for a fabulous villain; it's just a shame that he doesn't quite do so well playing the hero. With his posh British accent and pretty boy good looks, it seems too much of a stretch to regard him as a decommissioned – no mention as to why – and rather lethal action-man. It's even more unbelievable that Larson needs to be consistently saved by him too. There's undoubtedly a leading man in there somewhere but this rough-and-ready role? Unfortunately, it doesn't really fit debonair Hiddleston like the glove Vogt-Roberts thinks it does.

Someone who has no problem into character however, is Samuel L Jackson, who pretty much stars as a parody himself, which most movie fans have come to expect nowadays. He gets to spice things up by adding a "B***h please" in with his usual "motherf***er," mind you, as Packard blindly vows to make an enemy out of Kong (when everyone else knows that the humans are the true baddies here).

Kong: Skull Island

Other supporting characters fare better, as they're surprisingly given a little more to work with and are the most fleshed-out of the bunch. We sympathise with Toby Kebbell's soldier Chapman, as he writes letters to his young son back home apologising for missing his birthday while Jason Williams and Shea Whigham's Cole add so much needed personality. Comic relief John C Reilly – who plays a World War II veteran stranded on Skull Island for the last 28 years – is the only one warranted a true backstory though and is a particular stand-out because of it.

While screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein may have let the side down with the characters and bordering-on-cheesy script, cinematographer Larry Fong well and truly knocks it out of the park. While Peter Jackson's King Kong was grey and grizzly, Fong uses many different colour palettes to heighten each scene's mood; from neon-esque purples and tranquil dusky blues to lush greens and scorched oranges. Some shots are outright stunning too; like the one that sees Kong's blacked-out silhouette in front of a bright sun or a fight between the ape and a scary-looking MUTO, which is framed suitably by rocky mountains and a tiny Larson (symbolic?) in the foreground.

Regardless of its flaws, there's still a fair few things to like about Kong: Skull Island. It's somewhat boldly ambitious in both its visual aesthetic and its story-telling, and it just about copes with the amount of premise it has to present. Its action may not be quite as epic as the trailers make out but when Kong goes up against the multitude of creatures on the island, you're sure to get a kick out of the intelligent ways he takes them down. You'll leave looking forward to further instalments in this developing, new Monsterverse... and hoping that the characters are better next time round.

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