Film Review: Kong: Skull Island

Directed with tongue halfway in cheek, this busy, booming, snarky reshuffling of Kong-flick tropes throws 'Apocalypse Now' visuals, a conspiratorial backstory and self-aware gags into the mix but can’t quite generate characters worth rooting for.
Major Releases

There’s a reason that your better monster movies treat their beast much as one would a grand Hollywood star of yesteryear. They aren’t rushed out at the first opportunity, but held back, hinted at, and then just when the tension should be knife-cutting thick, given the grand reveal. Whether you’re talking the great white in Jaws or Norma Desmond, keeping your star attraction in reserve is generally viewed as a smart play.

That’s not the case with Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ blam-tastic Kong: Skull Island. This is a movie so eager to show off its skyscraper-sized primate that it trots him out before we’ve even gotten to the credit sequence. In this iteration’s 1944-set opener, two downed fighter pilots (American and Japanese) parachute onto a tropical island beach and set about trying to kill each other before being interrupted by Kong’s glowering eyes.

King Kong’s home of Skull Island is as ever surrounded by that permanent storm cloud that keeps it hidden from the outside world. This time, though, the adventurers plunging through its lightning-flashed clouds aren’t oil-hunting wildcatters or Barnum-like showmen looking for an exotic attraction. It’s 1973, and just as an American helicopter assault unit is getting ready to leave a winding-down Vietnam War, they’re sent on one last mission: escort some scientists to Skull Island, where they plan to do research via dropping “seismic charges” (bombs, to you and me). Also along for the ride as the requisite thoughtful civilians between the trigger-happy soldiers and arrogant scientists are mercenary Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and self-proclaimed “anti-war” photographer Mason (Brie Larson).

Warnings for the keen-eyed viewer proliferate, from the tight-lipped scientists Bill (John Goodman) and Houston (the suddenly ubiquitous Corey Hawkins) very clearly not telling the whole story, to the shadowy nature of their government agency, the overeager commander Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), the worried looks that the sensible civilians Conrad and Mason are always exchanging, and the couple dozen uniformed no-names who may as well have bull’s-eyes tattooed on the backs of their heads. Nevertheless, amidst a heavy slapping-on of ersatz Apocalypse Now rock ’n’ roll wartime atmosphere where Stooges and Bowie are always blasting on somebody’s portable turntable and every chopper is luxuriantly framed against a rich red sunset, the mission proceeds. And before one of the pilots can ask, “Is that a monkey?” a roaring Kong starts slapping Hueys out of the air.

Once everyone is trapped on Skull Island, the lushly photographed scenery (both Vietnam and Hawaii were used as backdrops) provides a seductive backdrop for all the prehistoric, nightmarish dangers afoot. A number of these, such as the giant treehouse-like spider with the long stabbing legs, seem designed merely for maximizing 3D ticket-buyer value. Others, like the reptilian “skull crawlers” or the Cthulhu tentacle monster, have no real character, being just speed and menace.

The centerpiece battle between Kong and the fluttering choppers is superbly choreographed mayhem. But it’s also an example of how Vogt-Roberts’ half-sarcastic approach diminishes the movie’s appeal. Almost everything is played as half a gag, what with the second-hand “Lost”-isms about secret government programs and mysterious monsters, and the mechanical attempts to pretend the soldiers aren’t cannon fodder by supplying them with unfunny wisecracks. As one character after another becomes monster mulch, it barely registers for a chuckling audience.

Vogt-Roberts’ cynically comedic take at least pays off nicely in the addition of John C. Reilly as the half-crazed American pilot from the opening scene, who’s been waiting decades to be rescued and is just wondering whether the Cubs ever won the World Series. Airy and deft, Reilly is the only performer able to plug into the movie’s resolutely unserious mood. Jackson’s napalm-hot glare powers Packard’s quick transition into a Mad Ahab whose white whale is Kong. Hiddleston and Larson are mostly there to pose attractively and suggest sensible solutions that are rejected out of hand by characters rushing to their doom.

Even though it mostly reshuffles elements from earlier Kong films, Kong: Skull Island was clearly meant to feel like something fresh—a monster movie with Marvel-like sarcasm and J.J. Abrams trickery. It could be just the first piece in a larger tentpole franchise structure. But there’s something already a little worn out here, like we’re seeing Jurassic Park 8 without having gone through the rest of the series first.

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