There are a lot of pretty pictures and pretty actors in Kong: Skull Island, as well as some suitable splashy and occasionally scary set pieces, but there’s also a shallowness to it. It’s less of a slog than Peter Jackson’s tedious 2005 remake of the original, but it’s just as over-populated with stock characters, up to and including the giant ape at the center of things.
The premise helps a bit, however: This version of the story (designed to dovetail with some other upcoming giant monster flicks) is set in 1973, during the final days of the Vietnam conflict. With the political landscape in Southeast Asia about to change, Bill Randa (John Goodman), a scientist from the Monarch organization, finagles an expedition to a mysterious, unexplored island encapsulated by a perpetual storm. Joining him is a small cadre of researchers, soldier of fortune James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photo-journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and an air cavalry escort led by Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).
The by-the-numbers intro montage makes for a sluggish start, but things pick up once they arrive on the island, when Kong is introduced in grand style designed to placate viewers who resented Godzilla‘s “less is more” slow burn. The research project involves taking seismic readings by dropping special bombs on the jungle, which draws the ire of the great ape, who quickly trashes the entirety of Packard’s squadron. (With good reason, it’s later revealed.)
The survivors must undertake a dangerous trek to reach a rescue point, with the help of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a rather loony fighter pilot who’s been stuck on the island since 1944 and who knows its secrets. Meanwhile, Packard goes full Captain Ahab by way of Colonel Kurt, becoming hellbent on exacting revenge. Cue the big critters and even bigger explosions.
It’s surprisingly flat material from co-writers Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), and Max Borenstein (Godzilla), full of clunky dialogue and slap-dash plotting. Sure, it’s meant to be spectacle, but it doesn’t have to be as predictable or lazy as this.
The early ’70s setting allows for some intriguing commentary that only gets minor lip service, and the use of period detail is hit-and-miss: The soldiers embody almost every Vietnam War movie cliché one can think of, right on down to Huey gunships equipped with stereo systems blasting an on-the-nose “Hits of the ’70s” soundtrack. (CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Bad Moon Rising” — check. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane — yup. “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers — of course.)
It’s salvaged a little by virtue of its immensely talented cast, though most of them are hamstrung by weak character development. Most are little more than cardboard fodder to begin with, which is par for the course with a B-grade monster flick, but Kong succeeds where others have failed: It actually makes Tom Hiddleston seem boring. Many of the others fare better, though they are sadly given too little to do (Goodman especially). Ultimately, it is Jackson and Reilly who keep things afloat.
This is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ first time at the helm of a big-budget action feature, and his limited experience shows; Kong betrays the lack of an experienced, confident hand at the wheel. It’s visually sumptuous, courtesy of production designer Stefan Dechant and cinematographer Larry Fong, whose photography has often been watered down by Zack Snyder (see Batman v. Superman or Sucker Punch — or better yet, don’t). However, Vogt-Roberts tends to focus too much on snazzy shots to the detriment of pacing, coherent editing, and basic action choreography, and as a result his set pieces are often choppy and confusing.
This time around, it is likely to be boredom that kills the beast.