Moviegoers over a certain age will look at the poster art for Kong: Skull Island and immediately see the iconic one-sheet for Apocalypse Now. The story of the great ape has served as a metaphor for human hubris, colonialism, racism and more; now director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his writing team offer it as an antiwar parable.
It's not a terrible idea: Set in 1973, just as the U.S. withdraws from Vietnam, this reimagining sends a helicopter squad led by a gung-ho lieutenant colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) to explore an island newly discovered by satellite technology. In charge is scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who has conned a senator into funding his expedition to the place he believes is Giant Monster Central.
Lest you wonder why anyone would remake King Kong (1933) a third time, be aware that Skull Island isn't a remake but a prequel to a monster title fight. Randa represents a shadowy organization first seen in Godzilla (2014). Legendary Entertainment has Godzilla vs. Kong on its schedule for 2020, and the venerable ape has been supersized in preparation. Already too big to scale the Empire State Building, he's still growing, we're told.
For viewers who feel invested in the battles of these big CG critters, Skull Island may be essential viewing. For those who don't, it's a mixed bag. Don't come expecting the familiar King Kong story beats: the hostile natives, the creepy-yet-affecting "beauty and the beast" love story, the final stand in New York. A blond war correspondent (Brie Larson) fills the role of "beauty" here, but, apart from one soulful stare at her, Kong doesn't seem particularly obsessed. Indeed, this Kong (Terry Notary) doesn't have much personality at all.
The film is at its best when it sweeps us into the terror of confronting giants. The initial Kong-versus-helicopters scene is visceral and jarring, while a later encounter with a vast arachnid offers a tableau both horrific and absurd.
These set pieces suggest that Vogt-Roberts, known for the indie The Kings of Summer, might be good at making actual war movies. The soldiers are distinct characters, and their banter sets an amiably irreverent mood. The film verges into outright goofiness when John C. Reilly pops up as Marlow (yes, a Conrad reference), a pilot who's been stranded on the island since World War II. "Kong's king around here," he solemnly informs the explorers.
If only Marlow were the film's protagonist, instead of Tom Hiddleston's haunted hunter-tracker. Aside from posing like a matinee idol and muttering darkly about the costs of war, the latter barely even registers. Larson's journalist is equally flat, and saddled with some of the worst lines in the film.
Because it lacks a compelling hero or anti-hero, Skull Island comes off as a bunch of intermittently fun stuff orbiting an absent center. The antiwar theme becomes window dressing once Marlow clarifies that Kong is actually humanity's ally against the true enemy: hungrier, scalier monsters. War may be hell, in short, but it's better to fight than to be eaten, and primates need to stick together.
The film exemplifies the difficulty of trying to fit a writer or director's "vision" into the framework of a franchise. The politics of the 1933 King Kong were highly questionable, but the metaphor resonated, making audiences fear and fear for the title character. In Skull Island, nothing resonates because nothing sticks. When Reilly's Marlow sheepishly apologizes for giving the scaly monsters a silly name, you half-wish the filmmakers would apologize for their haphazardness, too.