The familiar question “Kong: Skull Island” seems to want to pose is: How powerless is man and his weapons when faced with nature’s most threatening forces?
Instead, it feels that those behind the camera were hell-bent on satisfying another curiosity: How much subpar filmmaking can the audience endure to get to the eye candy?
The latest iteration of the influential franchise that is nearing an unexpected 100 years of life is also one of its loudest and dumbest. It amounts to nearly two hours (though, thankfully, it seems much shorter) of brainless hodgepodge that teeters on overindulgence, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Transformer films for the worst reasons.
It’s one thing to make a monster movie and putting its human characters in the backseat. But if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Dan Gilroy are putting their scaly, furry, deadly creations front and center, their human counterparts aren’t just in the backseat; they’re being dragged through the road behind them at 100 miles an hour.
The dumbfounding thing is that part of “Kong” seems to want to make the humans an integral part of the story, even though it’s impossible to tell which of its handful of leading characters is supposed to be the main protagonist.
Is it Brie Larson’s idealistic photographer? Tom Hiddleston’s unconvincingly rugged tracker? Samuel L. Jackson’s tormented Vietnam War general, John Goodman’s obsessive scientist? They all have a legitimate case, and as underwhelming as their stories are, it’s clear that Gilroy was hoping one of them would hit the mark.
Even John C. Reilly’s Skull Island denizen has an unexpectedly large role, even though all he is destined to elicit are groans from the audience.
John Goodman plays Bill Randa, a scientist determined to prove that monsters exist, and researching them could hold scientific advantages. He manages to secure the support of a senator for a trip to Skull Island while the rest of the country’s leaders are preoccupied with the end of the Vietnam War (“There will never be a more screwed up time in Washington,” Randa says, in what might be the most ironically timely line of the year in a film).
After recruiting Hiddleston and Jackson to his team, and Larson hopping on as a photographer curious to see what Randa is on about, its off to the mythical land of monsters, where they are greeted with flying trees aimed at their helicopters and a grump Kong who doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.
From there, the adventure is on.
At least “Kong” doesn’t waste much time getting to its titular setting, and it doesn’t skimp out on its creatures either. The film boasts numerous creative monsters, snarling, snapping, seething their way on the screen. They provide the most satisfying moments of wonder, and absolutely share as much screentime as Kong, who, oddly enough, seems almost like a sidelined character in his own story at times.
But when he isn’t, the film’s most glorious shots (many of them prominently featured in marketing) unfold, like the ape king blocking out a huge sun in the vein of “Apocalypse Now” as he keeps watch over his territory, or as he lumbers morosely through valleys, the world’s deadliest loner.
“Kong: Skull Island” takes place in 1973, and it very much embraces its time period with hazy, napalm-colored horizons, a Rolling Stones-infused soundtrack, and even the relevant themes of paranoia. It’s all here.
While “Kong’s” aesthetic is consistent, the film’s tone isn’t. At times a full-on B-movie romp, at others an adventure film, and other points still a darkly gritty tale of revenge, “Kong” takes on more than we really ask it to, an unfortunate side effect of its overcrowded human cast (none of which are particularly memorable anyway).
Generally, “Kong: Skull Island” feels fairly unnecessary, the main purpose for its existing being a desire to show the immense scale that modern visual effects can provide. In that sense, I suppose, Kong himself is an appropriate case study, a suitable prop for the effects studio responsible for the film’s spectacle.
It’s tough not to compare “Kong: Skull Island” to its immediate predecessor from 2005: Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which feels like an uber-intimate and more dramatic character study of the monster by comparison to “Skull Island.”
In truth, the two couldn’t be more different. Even their apes look strikingly different. Jackson’s ate bamboo; Vogt-Roberts’ eats the tentacles of a squid that just tried to subdue him.
Whereas Jackson’s film offers a layered portrayal of Kong and his relationship to actress-turned-hostage Ann Darrow, Vogt-Roberts’ take is a much more dumbed-down affair that seeks to amaze through thrills rather than making us feel actual feelings for a 150-foot monkey.
Which is completely fine. In many ways, he accomplishes what he set out to do with “Kong: Skull Island,” though I wish it actually added something to the mythos of the legendary creature. Its high-flying action set pieces are entertaining enough, but its generally non-inventive plot and complete confusion of how to handle its characters almost makes it not worth the trip at all.
“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts