For a beast as mighty and mythic as King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World has been treated pretty shabbily by Hollywood ever since his still-awesome-after-all-these-years 1933 coming-out party. There was the loopy ‘60s spin-off pitting him against Godzilla, Dino De Laurentiis’ eco-conscious 1976 extravaganza featuring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Rick Baker in a primate suit, and Peter Jackson’s three-hankie, emo retelling in 2005, which painted the simian colossus as a misunderstood gentle giant looking for love in the dreamy eyes of Naomi Watts. The big fella seems fated to be let down by mankind. So it is with high hopes and tempered expectations that one approaches the splashy new Kong: Skull Island—a big, loud, and kinda silly monster mash that feels like a throwback to the late-‘90s Bruckheimer era of gung-ho, budgets-be-damned macho adventure.
Produced by the same folks behind 2014’s Godzilla reboot, Kong is no longer a standalone character. At least, looking forward. For better or worse, he’s been corralled into a bigger, more inclusive kaiju cinematic universe—just a chest-pounding cog in a bigger Monster Island hoedown to come. Such is the state of big-studio filmmaking in the 21st century, when it’s no longer enough to have just Batman or Captain America in a movie. Every other slightly related character has to be thrown into the mix as well. And yet, there’s some welcome elements of faithfulness to the original Kong story as well. Like its 1933 predecessor, the new Kong is set on the mysterious, unexplored Skull Island (although it’s been moved on the map a bit since the ‘30s). It’s there in the South Pacific that our story begins in 1944, when an American pilot and a Japanese pilot both ditch their fighter planes and parachute to safety into this deadly and deserted Eden. Once they land, they hunt one another in the jungle (it may be the first Tinseltown blockbuster to reference Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune’s Hell in the Pacific) until something appears to make them realize that their mano a mano battle is, in fact, small potatoes. A humongous roaring ape with fists the size of Studebakers, this King Kong makes the ones that came before seem almost puny by comparison.
Nearly 30 years later, it’s now 1973. Vietnam is winding down, and America is licking its wounds. John Goodman and Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins, working for a shadowy, X-File-like organization called Monarch, go to Capitol Hill seeking funding for an expedition to the uncharted Skull Island before the Russians can get there. Overhead satellite images show it to be in the shape of—yes—a skull, and it’s as ominous as its shape implies. Goodman makes the case that the U.S. government’s 1950s A-bomb tests in the Pacific weren’t tests at all, that the government was trying to kill something…Dun-Dun-Duh!!! Goodman assembles a team for the expedition, which includes a hunky tracker played by Tom Hiddleston, a photojournalist played by Brie Larson, and a team of rip-roarin’ Vietnam vets led by Samuel L. Jackson. The posse also includes Hawkins’ former onscreen NWA bandmate Jason Mitchell, Toby Kebbell, and Shea Whigham. The actress Tian Jing is thrown in as some sort of tag-along scientist with a few pointless lines and no real purpose, no doubt as a sop to the ever-important Chinese box-office market. All told, there are about a half dozen too many characters to keep track of once the film gets underway.
When they arrive on Skull Island, the place is like a pre-historic paradise ripped from the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Everything is super-sized. Not only Kong, but its other bloodthirsty denizens like pterodactyl-esque, saw-toothed lizard things, giant yaks, and ants that are mentioned but inexplicably are never shown. It’s also on the island where they meet that downed American pilot who’s managed to survive since WWII (a daffy John C. Reillly, who does a comic riff on Kurtz and is easily the best thing in the film). But we didn’t come to Kong: Skull Island for the characters (well-developed or otherwise), we came for the damn dirty ape. And director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Industrial Light and Magic’s Kong is a CGI showstopper. If only so much attention had been lavished on the rest of the story. Hiddleston and Larson are especially let down by the script, which wants to be both jokey and red-meat in the way that something like Predator was, but it can’t quite pull it off. The same lack of care goes into the period-specific song choices that have as much imagination as a Time-Life Songs of the ‘70s set, including two Creedence Clearwater Revival chestnuts.
As for subtlety, there isn’t a whole lot of that either. The team starts dropping bombs and wreaking havoc on the island, letting you know that the real monster is man himself. Meanwhile, Reilly and the mighty Kong are left to save the picture. And mostly, they succeed. Or, at least, well enough. Kong swats the military helicopters out of the sky like a giant swatting pesky flies. Jackson barks his great vengeance and furious anger. Hiddleston smolders and briefly wields a samurai sword. Larson takes surprisingly few pictures for a photographer, but she does get her Fay Wray moment. And Reilly delivers sorely needed punchlines between exposition about Kong and the island’s backstory. The rest are, more or less, just bodies lining up for the body count—although some of the kills are surprisingly clever and not worth spoiling. Meanwhile, Kong does his thing and does it well. The poor misunderstood guy seems destined to keep proving to humankind that he comes in peace. I kept waiting for a single tear to streak down his big hairy cheek. B-