First off, let's dispense with the popular notion that Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie variation on Apocalypse Now. Despite the repeated visual references to Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic and the presence of a major character named “Conrad,” the movie doesn't even feel like it was made by people who have actually seen Apocalypse Now. It's more like a movie that walked through an Apocalypse Now-themed amusement park and came out wearing an Apocalypse Now cap and t-shirt.
Admittedly, comparing a CGI-fueled action extravaganza like this to one of the greatest films of the 1970s isn't exactly fair, even if the movie constantly courts such comparisons. Indeed, the film is relentless in its desire to pay homage to an abundance of other classic films. There are less-than-subtle references to the likes of Platoon, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, Jurassic Park and others, all of which are way out of this movie's league. Still, the problem isn't that Skull Island fails to establish itself as a modern classic. The problem is that it fails to be any good at all.
The film is set in 1973, as the Vietnam war is drawing to a close. Government official Bill Randa (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski) is leading an expedition to mysterious Skull Island, where he's hoping to find... well, something. Randa is accompanied on the journey by seasoned tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, Crimson Peak), veteran war photographer (okay, she calls herself an “anti-war photographer”) Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, Room), biologist San Lin (Jiang Tian, The Great Wall), geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton), Landsat official Victor Nieves (John Ortiz, Luck), U.S. Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction) and a large handful of soldiers under Packard's command (played by the likes of Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann and Eugene Cordero).
It's a big cast, sure, but giant monsters need a lot of food to survive. The first of the monsters the group encounters is Kong himself, who immediately swats the group's helicopters out of the sky, kills a bunch of people and instantly transforms Col. Packard into Captain Ahab: the man will not rest or make an effort to return home until he has felled the beast that killed his men. Alas, it turns out that Kong is the least of the group's worries. There are a host of other monsters on this island (including some nasty reptilian creatures known as “skullcrawlers”), and Kong – who is regarded by the local natives (who are treated as mute background props) as a god – is the only one capable of keeping the other creatures in check.
Skull Island is a movie with a lot of problems, but the most obvious one is that it has absolutely no idea what sort of movie it wants to be. Every subplot seems to be trying to sell us a different kind of monster movie, and the result is a film in which the tone changes drastically in almost every single scene. One minute we're watching a goofball comedy, another minute we're watching a grim revenge drama, another minute we're watching a cheekily self-aware summer blockbuster, another minute we're watching a Serious Movie with an Important Message. It might have been possible to blend some of these elements together in an interesting way, but watching Skull Island often feels like channel-surfing. Much like Suicide Squad (also produced by Warner Bros.), it feels very much like a script-by-committee affair (also like Suicide Squad, it unsuccessfully tries to paper over the inconsistencies with an abundance of instantly-familiar – and in this case, literal - needle-drops).
The cast is loaded with talented actors, almost all of whom fail to elevate the material. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson have the look of iconic action heroes – he with his three-day stubble, she with her increasingly dirty tanktop - but the characters they play are entirely forgettable (he's doing a vanilla version of an amoral mercenary, and she's doing a vanilla version of a righteous crusader). Samuel L. Jackson manages to make his conventional character (the military man who just wants to kill stuff) a bit more complex and sympathetic than you expect, but the filmmakers can't seem to decide whether they want him to deliver a serious dramatic performance or just be “Samuel L. Jackson.” John Goodman has a big speech in which he explains exactly what drove him to seek out this island, and it's one of those scenes where you can almost see the screenwriter pounding away at the keyboard in the background.
The one bright spot in the cast is John C. Reilly (Magnolia), playing a former pilot who has been stranded on the island since WWII. Reilly's performance contains as many different tonal shades as the film itself, but unlike the movie, he manages to bring them all together to form a greater whole. He seems like a man who was midway through the process of going crazy but hasn't quite gotten there yet, and he's responsible for most of the film's funny moments and pretty much all of its emotionally involving ones (though, again, these moments seem pretty disconnected from everything else).
Speaking of which: this is the first King Kong movie I've seen in which I felt pretty much nothing for the eponymous ape. The CG work is mighty impressive, but the character never comes across as anything more than a big monster. The sense of unspoken yearning that has made the character so memorable in previous incarnations has been stripped away. I'm not opposed to an alternate take, but it seems as if the only thing Skull Island cares about is making Kong a badass. He's cool, I guess, but he isn't interesting.
It's a shame that the story is such a mess, because director Jordan Vogt-Roberts clearly has a talent for whipping up large-scale action sequences. There are a number of genuinely impressive setpieces here, staged with a swaggering fluidity that will probably make Zack Snyder green with envy. Still, Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong had awe-inspiring, special effects-driven action sequences, too, and it actually gave you a reason to care about the people and creatures participating in them. A post-credits scene suggests that this is merely a single installment in what will eventually be a vast monster-movie universe. Hopefully the next installment will involve Kong storming through Hollywood in search of a decent script.
Kong: Skull Island
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Year: 2017