Because we’re geeks, we frequently find it’s easier to understand an artist’s work when comparing them to another artist, finding out the common or antithetical traits that bind them. Hence Dueling Auteurs, a column where we take two auteurs from any medium and compare and contrast them. This month, we pit Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new Kong: Skull Island against Gareth Edward’s Godzilla, both attempts to revitalize classic giant monsters via mostly untested indie auteurs.
Kong: Skull Island, the 2nd entry into Legendary Pictures “monsterverse,” is a film where director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is both drowning in his lack of originality and choking on the buffet of references and homage. It goes from bad to frustrating because something like this could very easily work. Successfully combining auteur filmmaking within a blockbuster has certainly succeeded before. Neighboring examples like Gareth Evan’s Godzilla are indicative of this (maybe the transition from Monsters to Godzilla is less drastic than The Kings of Summer to Kong: Skull Island). Because of the studio model of plucking young, untested indie directors and throwing them behind a tent pole property Vogt-Roberts loses all room to grow as a director and hone his voice. Instead, he’s resorted to the contradiction of relying on both glaring cliché and the studio clean up one would expect behind a blockbuster such as this.
The film’s conceit is simple enough: Apocalypse Now meets King Kong. On paper, this premise is ripe with the potential for strong ideas and character work; one can imagine how well it worked within a board room as an elevator pitch. Sadly though, it seems that the concept was not developed much deeper from the initial pitch. We follow some scientists, a group of marines, and a damsel in distress as they coalesce with Kong and the titular Skull Island as we’re dragged on a rollercoaster ride of set pieces and, well, not much else.
The difference here between Kong Skull Island and Gareth Evan’s Godzilla is crucial to point out. While many criticized Godzilla for its lack of character depth and slow pace, the protagonists are used as a cypher for the audience in service to the spectacle of Godzilla. We exists behind the eyes of these characters and this is exemplified in how the film builds towards its finale and the set pieces it peppers along the way. The first person halo drop shows Godzilla as the suffix of his name and the finale, where Godzilla is given devoted screen time to battle other giant monsters, firmly plants the camera and characters as voyeurs for the action. This stylistic choice, to ground the action and frame it within a realistic perspective, is a subtle one that works resoundingly. Evan’s voice is allowed to shine in conjunction with the film instead of the two stepping over each other clumsily.
In Kong: Skull Island, however, all spectacle is both loud and vapid as Kong is revealed almost instantly and each subsequent action scene feels obligatory instead of extraordinary. The action may be shot well, but it is given neither the grace nor flourishes needed to make the style work. In trying to subvert the giant monster movie trope of holding off the climax of the monster’s reveal, the film poises itself for a downward spiral as soon as the adrenaline from Kong’s first action scene wears off. It’s from this place that the movie goes from harmless to desperate and cloying for references.
It’s in these action scenes and references employed that the film makes its plea for you to like it. The first couple of references that Vogt-Roberts uses are almost cute. “Hold on to your butts!” Samuel L. Jackson’s character declares without a hint of shame. It’s in the blatant references to Heart of Darkness within the naming conventions of the characters that we learn how little understanding Vogt-Roberts has of the intricacies present in the work it cribs from. Sure, you named a character “Conrad” and another “Marlow” but the film does not do anything with the allusion besides violently wink at an audience it thinks said audience is too stupid to question further. By the time you get to the blatant mimicking of the impalement scene from Cannibal Holocaust, the film loses all sense of tone and good taste.
It’s during a set piece where the marines, who up until this point are mostly portrayed as lighthearted, are traversing the jungles of Skull Island. Suddenly, a giant spider, the only one we see in the film, shoves one of its legs through the mouth of one of the marines, impaling him. As opposed to using this visual nod to Cannibal Holocaust as a tonal signal for a gradual descent into darkness or a warning, this violent scene is used for the only for the sake of being a reference. There comes a point where a film asks the viewer if it remembers something so many times that it makes you want to scream back at it to use it effectively or shut the fuck up.
While the film is titled Skull Island, we never feel a sense of place there. The island feels like a train, where carts are set pieces that are loosely strung along. From the fly-in helicopter reveal of the island, none of it feels like it’s lived in or even exists. In addition to the prior mentioned giant spider jungle attack scene, there’s a key scene with Toby Kebdell’s character, a marine stranded from the rest of his group, where he happens to be in a separate jungle with a separate giant bug encounter. Sure, it could happen, but the film never even tries to convince us of this, only hoping that we are distracted long enough to ignore it. This feeling extends itself to the fauna as well. Most creatures exist to serve one scene as a set piece, perform their task, and leave the screen and your mind as soon as possible. This is one of the shaved edges the film presents in its sacrifice to the altar of cinematic universe filmmaking: we lose place, voice, and world-building when vistas are only visited to be rushed through to set up further vistas in subsequent film entries. There’s no habitat or ecosystem presented, just an impetuous film that limps in service to its references and crescendos.
It’s an odd conundrum we have with Kong: Skull Island. We have a vapid entry into another cinematic universe where the truly vapid parts are the remnants of whatever auteur filmmaking Vogt-Roberts has in him. With more time or grace, the “monsterverse” could have poised itself to release unique, auteur films like Godzilla while still adhering to whatever climax lies at the end of the crossovers. Studio interference is granted, sure, and later reports confirm that some of what Vogt-Roberts wanted to employ to differentiate his film from other Kong movies was shooed away by the studios, but one has to consider what we are left with after all of that is said and done. In trying to walk the tightrope, Kong falls and rips all of the things it loves off the shelf on the way down.
Justin Micallef is a journalist and critic living in Metro Detroit. You can find his work at The Outhouse as well as Detroit Music Magazine. His personally curated brand of disappointed optimism can be found on his Twitter, @JustinRMicallef