KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Kong: Skull Island is a massively budgeted resurrection of familiar property designed as part of a universe-building series, and it boasts pricey visuals, earth-shaking sound, remedial plotting, cornball humor, talented leads giving paycheck performances ... . Oh, God. Is it summer already? What the hell happened to spring?!
That we live in blockbuster season all year ’round is, of course, hardly a new idea. But you won’t find any new ideas in this King Kong reboot, either – a busy and bloated popcorn entertainment so by-the-numbers that watching it is like playing a particularly dreary game of Action-Franchise Bingo. (A winking reference to a previous blockbuster? Got it! The dropping of one, and only one, F-bomb? Got that, too! Samuel L. Jackson? BINGO!) The film’s lone nod to invention may be its 1973 setting, which eliminates all traces of high-tech apparatus despite not adding a whiff of period to the performers’ modern readings and bearing. Even this, though, turns the experience into more of a yawn than it should have been. With its jungle locales and heavy mist and terrified grunts, we get that the movie is deliberately echoing – and sometimes blatantly stealing from – Vietnam War sagas such as Platoon and (especially) Apocalypse Now. Did we still need quite so much CCR and Jefferson Airplane on the soundtrack? Are none of these characters Carpenters fans?
Skull Island’s paltry, meaninglessly symbolic narrative sends a team of Army troops, high-ranking military personnel, and the requisite beautiful white headliners to a recently discovered Pacific isle that John Goodman’s chief investigator calls “a place where myth and science meet.” (The film opens with Goodman seeking governmental funding for the mission, giving his Nixon-era figure the chance to also say, “Mark my words: There’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” Ha ha. It’s funny ’cause it’s not true.) From the moment they arrive, however, the story could hardly matter less. And most viewers could hardly want it to, given the seemingly indisputable fun of watching panicked masses besieged by enormous lizards, spiders, pterodactyls, and an ape who once climbed the Empire State Building and is now roughly the size of the Empire State Building.
Some of this is fun. That spider’s first appearance, for instance, delivers a nasty jolt, and there’s a great, giggly scene of Kong wrestling a gargantuan octopus and slurping its tentacles down like spaghetti noodles. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, meanwhile, provides some much-needed poetic imagery via a behemoth water buffalo and Kong’s hand scooping Brie Larson out of the water, even if this young director doesn’t yet display anything in the way of a distinctive style or point-of-view. (Vogt-Roberts, whose only other feature was 2013’s The Kings of Summer, joins Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow and Fantastic Four’s Josh Trank as barely tested indie-flick helmers plunked into blockbuster terrain clearly before they were ready for it.) Yet those are only intermittent pleasures, and the movie craps out on giving us a sustaining one, because it turns out that King Kong, for no fathomable reason, is little more than an afterthought in his own star vehicle.
It’s unfortunate enough that there’s so much time and thuddingly obvious dialogue granted to Skull Island’s central humans. Though top-billed in the credits, Tom Hiddleston emerges as maybe the 11th or 12th most engaging person around; Larson has apparently mistaken green-screen acting for an eye-popping contest she’s desperate to win; and Jackson’s predictable glowers, threats, and rants would feel lazy even if he weren’t, for cheap laughs, also regurgitating his most famous line from Jurassic Park and chiding Larson with an anachronistic “Bitch, please!” (The supporting performers fare better: John C. Reilly is enjoyable in the charming-whack-job mode of Apocalypse Now’s Dennis Hopper, and the invaluable Shea Whigham is an archly gruff comic, and even gets to be truly moving – for all of two seconds.)
But while Kong may be King here, he’s also just a really big prop. Gone is any sense of fascination/attraction between the ape and our heroine – what beauty-and-the-beast connection they do share is strictly perfunctory – and although he grimaces and roars with pixelated fervor, we’re never given reason to care about this hairy brute; attributes such as curiosity, cheekiness, and empathy appear quite out of his wheelhouse, or perhaps those of his animators. (Rarely have I so missed Andy Serkis.) When, at the climax, King Kong finally takes on King Lizard – and we only know that latter creature is the island’s “big one” because Reilly helpfully tells us – you can be impressed by the visuals and still not care one iota about the fight itself. It’s like watching hunks of metal lay waste to each other in a Transformers movie.
Beat for beat, Kong: Skull Island is just an expensive going-through-the-motions endeavor, and an only randomly diverting one, that couldn’t appear less interested in elements such as personality or soulfulness or surprise. And if that colon in the title didn’t already give things away, it likely won’t be the last of its formulaic kind: Godzilla vs. Kong is already slated for 2020. It should come as no shock that this reboot doesn’t give us the tragic ending of previous Kongs – not when there’s franchise-extending to market and sequel money to be made. But I still hoped for something out of the ordinary from material so predisposed toward screen magic. At one point, following an early monster attack, Whigham shakes off the experience with a bone-dry “Well, that was an unconventional encounter.” The line gets a laugh, but man – if only the film itself were.