Kong: Skull Island declares war on a familiar story, loses
For a few years, starting in the late 1970s, there were movies about Vietnam veterans coming home. These films tended toward quiet anguish. Then came Rambo: First Blood Part II. That 1985 POW-rescue fantasy was about a one-man-against-the-system warrior going back to Vietnam — and retroactively winning the whole damn conflict.
Where once Hollywood required about 12 years to give audiences that particular brand of wish fulfillment, Kong: Skull Island needs only about 10 minutes.
It’s 1973, and Nixon has only just announced troop withdrawals when Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) gets himself right back in the shit. He’s providing a military escort for scientists determined to visit an uncharted jungle island — a mission that gives Packard a chance to symbolically right the wrong of losing a war.
That quick turnaround is emblematic of the narrative short cuts plaguing this lackluster monster-movie reboot, which strands talented actors in a nothing script and, predictably, relies on CGI action sequences to do all of the heavy lifting. This new Kong is a lot like Jurassic World — it’s a cynical cash-grab that forgets what made the original myth compelling and substitutes more digital beasts doing more killing (of people and of other digital beasts).
Tom Hiddleston is Kong’s nominal lead, though he has virtually nothing to do. He’s James Conrad, a former RAF agent reputed to possess amazing tracking skills. The character’s talents are nowhere on display, however, and Hiddleston never seems sure of how much awe (or how little) he’s supposed to show as giant creatures begin to chew up his men. Brie Larson’s character describes herself as an “anti-war photographer” — the first person you’d want on a secret government mission, right? — but voices few opinions about the carnage she witnesses. Besides being the token good-looking movie stars, what are they doing here?
The rest of the cast is filled out with minor supporting players, including Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell (both much better in Straight Outta Compton), and high-profile character actors Jackson and poor John Goodman, who gets an especially raw deal. He’s forced to sell us a bunch of horseshit about ancient monsters that live underground, a task written into Kong only to make it vaguely align with a superior monster-movie reboot, 2014’s Godzilla.
One guy who understands what kind of film he’s in — and is given the agency to be a smartass about it — is John C. Reilly. As a World War II pilot who’s been stuck on the island for 28 years, he gets to blithely tear down all the company’s bad ideas about what to do next, while providing a much-needed dose of cheek.
Being a formulaic horror-adventure movie, Kong: Skull Island knocks off nameless characters, one by one, for our pleasure. As it fulfills this duty, it is not without a smattering of clever deaths; one man’s clichéd heroic moment is slapped aside like an afterthought, another falls victim to a malfunctioning camera flash, and one poor bastard is taken aloft by pterodactyl-like creatures and ripped apart limb by limb in silhouette against a sun that seems always to be setting.
Oh, and to get back to Vietnam for a second: Employing familiar iconography as your cast journeys upriver — and naming your main character after Joseph Conrad (author of Heart of Darkness) — doesn’t make your movie Apocalypse Now. (Reilly, who lives among the silent island natives as some kind of leader, seems partly designed as a kind of corny Col. Kurtz equivalent.) No, these elements only further confuse the ineffectual collision of tones from director Jonathan Vogt-Roberts (whose sole feature credit is the coming-of-age indie sleeper The Kings of Summer), undermining the film’s visual sensibility.
And make no mistake, cinematographer Larry Fong and the CGI artists are the real stars of the film. They constantly re-enforce the scale of what we’re looking at: When the camera takes the point of view of one character during a big battle scene, as it does often here, we have an exhilarating perspective. Another recurring motif — and about the only convincing use of the man-vs.-nature trope that’s supposed to be built into this tale — are the reflections we see in slow, zoom-in close-ups on characters’ eyes.
As overlong as it was, Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake at least retained the Depression-era themes and emotional core of the 1933 original. Kong: Skull Island didn’t have to do the same thing, but having an emotional core at all would have been a good idea. Jackson concentrated on at least one believable relationship — between Kong (motion-capture king Andy Serkis) and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) — and spent considerable screen time (recall that his was three hours long) developing it. This movie has zero believable relationships — unless you count the one between Kong and his island adversaries, the reptilian skull-crawlers.
It’s strange to reminisce about the good ol’ days — just over a decade ago — when Gollum and Kong seemed to portend an era of convincing motion-capture character design. Outside of Serkis’ work in the new Planet of the Apes series, though, there’s not a lot of great stuff to crow about these days. When last year’s most-anticipated movie resurrected Peter Cushing as a dead-eyed, rubber-faced apparition, we’ve arguably teetered backward.
With its showman character who wants to transplant the giant ape to the States, Jackson’s remake and the 1933 original both satirized the “anything for a buck” mentality of show business. Kong: Skull Island instead embodies that American Barnum impulse, hoping that a heavy dose of violence and a familiar entity in the title will be enough to pack ’em in. Behold the sad, cynical Kong: First Blood Part II.