All kinds of talented people took big money and made Kong: Skull Island, a proficient and stupefyingly predictable computer-generated giant monster picture that no one needed and that ends with the promise of still more — featuring old friends from the terrible but sometimes entertaining Toho mash-ups of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. (I’ll exempt from that characterization the original Gojira, a primitive but haunting nuclear parable.) The conceit of Kong: Skull Island is the same one that fueled the last, passable Godzilla: that there are colossal, primordial creatures that human meddling has liberated from the bowels of the earth, and only other colossal, primordial creatures — like Zilly or, now, the big gorilla — can save us. Separating the good ’uns from the bad ’uns might be our species’ greatest test — which is to say, we should not firebomb our saviors just because they’re apt to stomp on a few buildings while getting the dirty job done. The real villain of this one turns out to be a human monster.
The heroes are Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, two excellent actors who’ve never before accepted such characterless characters. I don’t begrudge them their payday, only that they don’t rise above the material. Hiddleston plays James Conrad, a supposedly hard-partying tracker who doesn’t seem like a fun person even in non-fraught moments. I assume his name is meant as a nod to the author of Heart of Darkness, given that the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, cribs much of his imagery from Apocalypse Now under the guise of paying homage. The film is set at the end of the Vietnam War (Nixon appears on TV yammering about “peace with honor” and later as a bobble-head doll) and Larson plays a self-described “antiwar photographer” who passes up the cover of Time for an expedition to an uncharted island. She has a nice tan and sun-kissed hair that’s fetchingly blown back, and she manages to say her lines with a straight face. But that’s as far as I’ll go with the praise.
The expedition is led by a mysterious, government-funded entity called Monarch, overseen by John Goodman with an assist from Corey Hawkins of 24: Legacy and The Walking Dead. (He also played Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton.) Along for window dressing is the Chinese actress Jing Tian, last seen leading the charge in the already infamous “ponytail epic,” The Great Wall. A surprising number of American soldiers chopper in to provide fodder (literally) for sundry monsters. They are variously chewed, stomped, skewered, and dismembered — though in PG-13 fashion, which means the film is safe for kiddies. The only really memorable one is Shea Whigham, who puts a spin on his lines as a spirited grunt. John C. Reilly hams it up as the ebullient World War II survivor with a bushy white beard like David Letterman’s these days and the Conradian moniker Marlow. He’d be less tiresome with better lines. His best one comes early on when he identifies the giant ape that has felled a number of attacking helicopters: “Oh, that’s Kong. He’s king around here!”
The Vietnam War–era setting allows the screenwriters (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, with a story credit for John Gatins) to tell themselves they’ve brought something new and daring to the party: a crunchy peacenik message about the moral and physical peril of invading other countries and showing no respect for the planet’s exquisitely calibrated ecosystem. The good politics make me even more disgusted by the hack storytelling. The warmonger, Preston Packard, is shown leaving Vietnam on a note of dejection and insisting that the U.S. didn’t “lose” the war — “We abandoned it.” Napalming Kong, he declares, “This one we’re not going to lose!” Packard is played, alas, by the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson, who has no surprises left in him. I love Jackson in his Tarantino and Spike Lee movies but he has been repeating himself for two decades.
Which leaves the monsters. This Kong is immense — much bigger than in his original American incarnation, as he was in the Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla — and has impressively tight and well-defined glutes. His sensitivity is both great and convincingly simian. He understands, for example, that Brie hates war and loves animals, while Sam Jackson — who glares at him from amid the smoke of burning choppers in the movie’s most ludicrous shot — is an example of blind American arrogance. At other times, he conveys the sadness of one who is the last of his kind. He is God’s Loneliest Ape.
A spidery wood beast is rather nice, but the nastiest creatures, which Marlows dubs the “Skull Crawlers,” are just reptiles affixed with skull heads. They do, however, have amazingly long and versatile tongues, like some of the better Hong Kong demons. And the Chief Skull Crawler’s final bash-and-crash with Kong has its rousing moments, like when Kong grabs a tree, slides his hands along the trunk to strip the branches, and whales away on his ugly foe. By the way, even giant monsters these days need “backstories” that give them a motive for revenge. The Chief Skull Crawler ate his whole family and Kong has been itching for a fight ever since.
Vogt-Roberts comes from the world of comedy and can only imitate his predecessors (and Coppola), but he dutifully hits his marks, which is all studios want from directors of these kinds of films. For all the impressive visuals, the monsters rarely stick in the mind the way some of the cheap Japanese ones do. Consider the humanoid Gargantuas — known in Japan as the Frankensteins — of War of the Gargantuas, who are riveting in their freakiness. And the by-the-numbers plot isn’t nearly as fun as the one in my favorite bad Toho movie, King Kong Escapes, in which a stuffed-animal-like Kong fights a Kong robot dispatched by the evil Dr. Hu. Kong: Skull Island will probably be a hit, but its combination of lavishness and lack of imagination is the only thing memorable about it.