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A still from "Kong: Skull Island." Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Movie review: Uneven story and production don’t stop ‘Kong: Skull Island’ from shining

Thanks to the cinematic masterpiece that is 1998’s “Godzilla” being one of the few VHS tapes I had as a kid, monster movies have always held a special place in my heart. The idea of an impossible, prehistoric beast coming face to face with modern society is so dumb and absurd in the most entertaining way. Gareth Edwards’ take on “Godzilla” (2014), while awesome in its scale, took itself too seriously and lacked any sort of silly fun. Trying to create an inter-film continuity of their own to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Legendary Pictures reintroduced King Kong to the world in “Kong: Skull Island.”

Framed as an exploration of an uncharted island, Bill Randa (John Goodman), a mysterious government agent, recruits former British Special Forces Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and the Sky Devils helicopter squad, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), to aid and document the trip. The story and characters here don’t really matter, and are treated as such. The movie’s pacing is disorientingly quick, moving from exposition and character introductions as rapidly as it can without leaving the audience behind. Though this might be an issue in other movies, “Skull Island” is all about the action and this light narrative serves the film well.

The action itself, however, comes and goes just as fast as the narrative moments. Besides the final climactic scenes between Kong and the so-called skull crawlers — essentially giant alien lizards — various monsters that live on the island, such as giant squids and spiders, only get brief moments that last a minute or less. Unlike Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” (2005) which afforded its creatures moments like the harrowing bug pit scene, “Skull Island” spreads itself thin by trying to show too many monsters in its two-hour runtime.

There’s also a sense that the intended vision for the film by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who previously directed the indie hit “The Kings of Summer,” (2013) is undercut for whatever reason. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, Vogt-Roberts is clearly going for an “Apocalypse Now” vibe that variably falls short. His directing is experimental at times, which, while refreshing for a big-budget film, often feels indulgent or cheap. Focusing on the explosions reflected in a helicopter pilot’s sunglasses is neat, but so ridiculously on the nose. Subtlety may not be Vogt-Roberts’ strong suit, but a visual inventiveness and semblance of artistic vision working within a franchise film is still something to celebrate, even if parts of it feel derivative of other works.

There’s also a question of the CGI for “Skull Island,” which looks stunning at parts and almost unfinished at others, especially sequences that take place at night. This is, in a way, the story of this film. The aspects that work do so very well. Watching the movie, I felt imbued with a sense of adventure and terror that monster movies are supposed to give the audience. But its shortcomings were impossible to ignore and, in some instances, could have easily been fixed. That being said, “Skull Island” is still the most fun I’ve had watching a blockbuster since “Furious 7” and is certainly worth seeing on the big screen.

7/10 stars

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