One of the smartest choices in monster movie history was made out of sheer necessity. In 1974, Steven Spielberg decided to shoot his film Jaws on the open ocean rather than in a tank on Universal’s lot. The filmmakers dragged three robotic sharks (collectively named ‘Bruce’) out into the Atlantic to proceed with a shoot that went 100 days over schedule. The production was a mess for several reasons, but one big problem was that the salt water began to distort and corrode the mechanical carcharodons. This posed a big problem for a movie that hinged entirely upon its ability to make audiences believe the shark was real.
So Spielberg made a decision that must have frustrated the engineers behind his aquatic animatronics: he would have to shoot the shark as little as possible. Thus, in many sequences Jaws is seen just below the surface or not at all, while John William’s iconic musical theme is constantly used as a stand-in for the benevolent fish’s physical presence. Though the simple result of unfortunate circumstances, keeping the shark hidden proved extremely beneficial. It forced Spielberg to adhere to an essential horror truism: a monster is much more frightening when left to the imagination. Instead of a waterlogged action-adventure film, a truly terrifying horror classic was born.
The restrictions that plagued special effects-centric movies in the 1970s have since been eradicated and it’s fitting that Spielberg himself had a hand in it. After the Jaws ordeal, he must have felt absolutely liberated by the ability to use sophisticated computer graphics for Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds, later cementing CGI’s staying power by producing 2007’s Transformers. These days, blockbuster filmmakers are free to imagine fearsome foes of any size or complexity, and display them however they choose. This poses an important conundrum for Hollywood monster movies: should they show off their convincing effects as much as possible, or do they stick with the effective techniques Spielberg perfected by keeping the monster obscured… on purpose this time?
For instance, Cloverfield purposefully kept its monster mostly under wraps until the end in order to better reflect the disorienting, incomprehensible anxiety of the 9/11 attacks. And say what you will about 2014’s Godzilla (I will, it’s overrated), its insistence on keeping the titular lizard marginalized added immensely to the impact of its impressive third-act rampage. In stark contrast, Warner Brothers’s Kong: Skull Island goes the Michael Bay route. This movie is a toy chest and director Jason Vogt Roberts just wants to show off his toys. We see the big monkey in all its glory early on, not to mention a handful of other insane, imaginative species that live on his island domain. This bombastic approach turns out to be at once a breath of fresh air and a case of sensory overload.
But it’s important to give some context first. Vogt-Roberts is the latest filmmaker to be handed a huge blockbuster after directing only a single indie feature (in his case 2013’s low-key coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer). This practice worked out for Warner when they hired up-and-comer Gareth Edwards, straight off of his low budget debut Monsters, to direct their Godzilla reboot despite his lack of experience. The massive box office success of that film earned him a job helming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and convinced Warner to set up an interconnected giant monster universe that contains Skull Island, a 2019 Godzilla sequel, and mash-up Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020.
So who can blame the studio for once again entrusting a young (and cheap) whippersnapper like Vogt-Roberts to create a sleek, modern King Kong story? At the very least the youthful energy he brings is on full display, reflected in an extreme visual dynamism. His camera spins, swoops and careens across the screen, jumping from character to character and location to location at a rapid pace. The production design is infused with dazzling colors and though the CGI doesn’t reach the industry high bar, Kong and the other huge beasts (including stilt-legged spiders, skeletal lizards and stone-horned buffalo) are inventive and evocative in their designs.
Vogt-Roberts seemingly aspires to be a Quentin Tarantino for a new age, drawing from an eclectic range of pop culture from his childhood: instead of exploitation and westerns, it’s anime and video games. These aesthetic sources are clearly responsible for his decision to keep the monsters in the spotlight. Video games rely on having the enemies in sight as often as possible, while the freedom of 2D animation has lent anime a long history of gigantic monstrosities. It’s exciting to see the rise of a new generation with distinctive influences, but Vogt-Roberts is no Tarantino (at least not yet). At times it appears he’s more interested in paying homage to his influences than creating a coherent vision, and while this leads to an astonishing kaleidoscope of style, there’s so little substance it hurts.
For all the differences between this film and 2014’s Godzilla, both suffer from terrible scripts that both commit the same major sin: too many characters with no space to flesh them out or take advantage of the actors’ skills. The first half hour of Kong introduces a horde of characters played by an insane amount of talent including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, and both Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton (two actors who deserve the blockbuster break). Everyone is given at least one moment in the spotlight, but one is not enough. Much of the focus ends up going to John C. Reilly (as a WWII vet stranded on the island for decades), whose wacky delivery fits the tone but steals everyone else’s screen time.
For a surprisingly long while, it’s possible to overlook the vaporous relationships and awkward dialogue because the visual bombast is strong enough to carry the movie on gonzo B-movie fumes alone. But the whole narrative crumbles hard in the final act, once it tries to ‘pay off’ emotional arcs that were barely even established in the first place. Suddenly, we’re asked to care about the well-being of these people, despite the fact that by this point half of them have died in abrupt and often hilarious ways. Certain characters are paired off by this point, but if you blinked at any point, you probably missed when and how these relationships happened.This awful storytelling manages to dull a terrifically badass climactic fight sequence with Kong at center stage because it constantly cuts to the dumb humans in the middle of the action.
Kong: Skull Island demonstrates the positives and negatives behind the Transformers approach to monster movies. CGI allows for a greater focus on the look and scale of whatever vivid creatures one can imagine, but it also encourages blunt storytelling that runs contrary to the genre’s suspenseful, legitimately frightening legacy. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t embrace its own insane frivolousness and jettison our attention on the human characters altogether, instead opting to emulate every other blockbuster by the second half. Vogt-Roberts leaks potential all over the screen (this is the clear result of a guy who’s been handed $185 million) and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here, but his Kong is another modern monster mishap. His successor would be wise to look to Spielberg for the answers.
Score: 2.5 out of 5