Kong: Skull Island has a deceptively thoughtful first act. Director Vogt-Roberts and his three screenwriters carefully and deliberately introduce the cast and the seventies time period (the film’s set immediately following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam). The script’s smart in the first act, giving John Goodman and sidekick Corey Hawkins a quest. They need to assemble a team to investigate a newly discovered island in the South Pacific. They hire expert tracker and charming mercenary Tom Hiddleston, they have an Army escort courtesy Samuel L. Jackson; there’s even photographer Brie Larson, though she just sort of comes aboard without anyone taking much notice.
Well, Hiddleston notices her, but only because they’re paired off. Hawkins eventually gets paired off Jing Tian, though they have a heck of a lot more chemistry than Hiddleston and Larson. They just bond over being too cerebral for such poorly written characters while also managing to be sexy through sweatiness.
They all get to the island. There’s a giant ape. There are giant water buffalo. There are giant octopi. There are giant lizards with skulls for heads. There’s stranded WWII pilot John C. Reilly for what occasionally seems like comic relief, only he’s never funny. His performance is fine. He’s just not funny. Goodman is sometimes funny, especially with Hawkins as straight man. And Shea Whigham, as Jackson’s second-in-command, he’s really funny. Unfortunately, even though the screenplay has occasional black humor and a lot more opportunity for it, Vogt-Roberts never goes for it. Or it goes over his head.
While Skull Island often looks pretty good, it’s more because Larry Fong knows how to shoot it or Richard Pearson knows how to edit it than anything Vogt-Roberts brings to the film. When it comes time for Jackson to go on an Ahab–he’s mad pinko photographers like Larson made the U.S. lose the war and so he has to kill the giant ape–Jackson’s already thin performance becomes cloyingly one note. Vogt-Roberts does nothing to prevent it. To be fair, he doesn’t really do anything to enable it either; directing actors isn’t one of his interests in the film.
Only once they’re on the island and Jackson’s Ahab syndrome becomes the biggest danger, there’s no real opportunity for good period music. Instead it’s Henry Jackman’s lousy score and the questionably designed skull lizards. While there’s a lot of thought in the creature design, the skull lizards are just unrestrained, thoughtless excess.
There are plenty of solid supporting performances, but they’re all constrained. Hiddleston’s lack of depth is stunning, until you realize Larson’s got even less but she’s able to get a lot farther. Everyone is supposed to look concerned or sacred–except Jackson, of course–only Larson manages to look concerned and thoughtful. It’s a lot for Skull Island. Whigham’s the only other actor who achieves it.
Ninety percent of the special effects are excellent. The remaining ten percent are still mostly good except when it’s a night scene. Vogt-Roberts (and, frankly, Fong) construct lousy night scenes. Skull Island is a movie with a giant CGI ape and the filmmakers can’t figure out how to do studio-for-night composite shots. It’s kind of annoying.
Everyone’s likable enough, save Jackson and a couple hissable stooges, and once Kong gets to a certain point in the second act, enough gears are in motion to get it to the finish. It’s far from the film the first act implies. Even if Vogt-Roberts were a better director, the script is still dreadfully shallow.