I have rarely seen a cinema audience as rowdy as the crowd at my screening of Kong: Skull Island yesterday evening. Roughly ten minutes in to the film, peaceful decorum in the auditorium seemed to be abolished, with audience interaction reaching a level usually associated with cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room, not a preview screening of a would-be franchise starter.
Here was a crowd actively hating a movie in real time, loudly questioning plot holes, laughing at the overwrought serious moments and audibly cringing at the moments designed to be broadly hilarious. Usually, I would have started passive aggressively shushing fellow patrons, but this time, the loud reaction from the audience proved to be enough to keep me sane throughout the entire experience – because from where I was sat, Kong: Skull Island proved itself to be the worst blockbuster in recent memory.
This megabudget flop in waiting is only the second film from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, after his charming 2013 indie The Kings of Summer. Instead of letting himself artistically develop, he has fallen in to the common trap of many “Sundance filmmakers”, where major studios hire underdeveloped directors to take on projects they are not yet skilled enough to complete successfully. His background in comedy is underserved here; despite a plethora of moments designed to be intentionally comical, all humour is drained by the fact you can feel a studio head off screen asking him to make the comedy as broad as possible so it plays in foreign markets.
He has assembled a fantastic cast, but the characters are nothing more than underwritten archetypes, relying on broad jokes and action movie asides to sell their characters. In moments that should generate emotional resonance, this lack of interest in the characters is laid bare. The horrors they are facing fail to register, with several major characters meeting grisly fates that the film itself fails to dwell on, with characters frequently failing to pass comment on the major characters around them that are being dispatched of. Even though it is attempting to homage 50’s monster movies, the end result is closer to a nineties creature feature like Deep Blue Sea, especially with the unexpected deaths that occur, in similarly staged ways to that slice of genre trash.
That film has managed to remain a pop culture talking point for two decades due to the unexpected death of a main character – Kong: Skull Island doesn’t even seem to care when some of its main characters die, so why should the audience? The film resembles nineties monster movies also in the sense that it has an uneasy command of tone, choosing to fall back on a queasily zany comedic sensibility instead of making us invested in the characters, or the narrative itself. It is a disappointing case of wasted potential, especially the lack of exploration into a theme raised in the opening fifteen minutes that is swiftly forgotten about: parallels with the Vietnam War, which the US have forfeited at the opening of the film.
In an attempt to go broad, Kong quickly forgets the most interesting thing it has going for it in order to become a joyless B-movie devoid of thrills, where no matter how many weird and wonderful creatures are introduced on Skull Island (heck, there’s even a scene where Kong eats a live octopus, a la Oldboy), they never prove terrifying. It’s less Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, more Mediocre Beasts and Who Gives a Shit About Finding Them.
Vogt-Roberts’ lack of experience creating special effects driven movies ensures the end result is aesthetically distasteful. Twelve years ago, Peter Jackson’s loving (if exceptionally overblown) tribute to one of his favourite movies of all time delivered spectacular special effects that still stand up to this day. Here, Vogt Roberts has managed to create Playstation 2 level graphics that look outdated in comparison to a previous King Kong adaptation released over a decade earlier.
Instead of proving to be terrifying, the creatures just look overwhelmingly goofy- which means the film gets away with more ridiculous violence than you’d expect to see in a family film. It’s confusion of tone, swapping between incessant character deaths and cringeworthy dad jokes by the second, leaves the sheer confusion as to who the target audience for this film is.
Kong: Skull Island is designed to be the second part in a new Warner Bros. cinematic universe of classic movie monsters, following 2014’s Godzilla. Although the tones of the two films couldn’t be any more different if they tried, they do both have one thing in common – the sense that they are “post-human blockbusters”, to quote a Dissolve article analysing Godzilla shortly after its release. In that film, the post-human nature was due to the cold, detached style of director Gareth Edwards, who had more interest in the monster than any of the humans populating his frame. Here, the “Post-Human” factor all stems from the fact all the characters are archetypes, who the film as a whole feel entirely indifferent towards; character deaths aren’t dwelled on and leave no impact on the story, with no character properly established to an extent that may generate audience interest.
Kong: Skull Island is worse than a bad blockbuster: it is so generic, its campiness feels more like an endurance test than a “so bad its good” homage to monster movies. With more plot holes than Prometheus, a narrative with wasted potential and special effects that are clueless about the “special” part, this is a sorry excuse for a blockbuster. This new Kong can never be crowned King.