King Kong has been an icon of cinema ever since the stop-motion gorilla stormed into the frame in 1933. With such a lofty reputation, it’s no wonder that subsequent versions of his story have struggled to get him right, fighting to reignite the potential of the franchise with mixed results. The campy 1976 vehicle faithfully resurrects the cartoonish aspects of the original in color (and proved an awkward launchpad for Jessica Lange’s career), while Peter Jackson’s fascinating 2005 effort melded old school escapism with new technology to such an extensive degree that it bled the concept dry. Just how much new escapism can you milk from one of the biggest faces in film history?
“Kong: Skull Island” puts that question to the test, and the outcome falls somewhere in between those two earlier efforts. A visually striking reworking of the “Kong” premise that never sets foot in New York City, its grand scale does justice to the ape’s towering presence but falls short of giving his world renewed appeal — in part because Kong’s world isn’t as appealing as what happens when you take him out of it. We remember that Empire State Building showdown for a reason: It’s the ultimate illustration of man’s fruitless attempt to tame nature.
To their credit, “Kong” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts — who previously directed the Sundance hit “The Kings of Summer,” which cost the amount of money it takes to animate Kong’s little finger — along with screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein, resurrect some of the original’s themes by presenting the showdown in war movie terms. Elegantly set in the Vietnam era, “Kong: Skull Island” finds a group of secret government officials and U.S. troops venturing to a mythical island in the South Pacific surrounded by a ubiquitous storm, where they find prehistoric wonders and naturally start shooting at them. Marooned in a fantastical land before time, their numbers dwindled as they battle towards an escape route, which is just enough of a setup to yield a number of mind-blowing CGI showdowns.
Their hyper-stylized confrontations with the island’s main attraction have the sizzling fury of “Apocalypse Now” (and a groovy classic rock soundtrack to match), and the movie does a better job at reimagining some of the tropes from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic than the hackneyed run-and-gun survival saga that ensues once they crash down. Of course, as soon as Kong arrives he steals the show, and none of the expansive human ensemble can compete for attention.
That’s especially unfortunate, because “Kong: Skull Island” has attracted a promising cast with the potential to elevate the material. Unlike Gareth Edwards’ expressionistic “Godzilla” remake — which, as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich pointed out upon its release, mostly ignored the human quotient — Vogt-Roberts has crammed his ensemble together to the point where they’re competing for attention throughout.
John Goodman shows serious potential early on as secret government investigator Bill Randa, who pleads with Washington to fund his exploratory mission. It’s a nice reminder that Goodman automatically salvages everything he’s in. (It’s almost a mini-short film unto itself to watch him ride through the D.C. streets and sigh, “There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”) Eventually, Bill recruits badass survivalist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead their mission, and they’re joined by a group of gun-wielding soldiers led by the hawkish Samuel L. Jackson, who has barked through these type of furious characters ever since “Pulp Fiction.” (This one’s more like B-roll from a better incarnation.)
The principal cast is rounded out by Brie Larson as a plucky photographer and goofball John C. Reilly as the abandoned marine the group discover on the island. All of these actors perform at different registers: Hiddleston and Jackson exhibit a one-note ferocity in tune with the underlying pulpiness of the material, while Larson (in a revised version of the damsel in distress) smirks her way through a more self-aware role alongside a giddy Reilly.
Jackson’s zany delivery overwhelms bland turns from fellow troops played by Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell and Thomas Mann, all of whom look content to scowl their way to studio paychecks. There are flashes of cutesy romantic chemistry between Larson and Hiddleston, but the screenplay barely finds more than a few minutes to squeeze them in.
Fair enough: “Kong: Skull Island” may include some clever period details and idiosyncratic asides, but it’s largely a blockbuster B-movie less interested in depth than scale. Early on, a trailer-ready soundbite describing the island as “a place where myth and science meet” provides sufficient excuse for the special effects wonders to come. And they are wonders: a Wizard of Oz-style sequence finds the travelers tearing through a storm in helicopters before facing down Kong in a matter of minutes, which naturally leads to a startling crash. (The recurring cutaway to a Richard Nixon bobblehead on the dash of one copter is a nice touch.)
From that point forward, two groups of survivors traipse across the island, battling off giant, beastly insects and arguing amongst themselves with mixed results. From this point forward, it’s mostly a cheesy action-adventure, one that suits Reilly’s zany delivery and Jackson’s stern line readings. But it can’t serve up a conflict without sagging into clichés. Jackson’s character naturally intends to destroy Kong, while some of the more empathetic members of the group will develop sympathy for the beast. When Jackson announces “I am the calvary,” a line some viewers may recognize from The Rock’s delivery of it in “Fast 7,” it’s clear that Kong isn’t the only familiar ingredient in play. We’ve seen this template before.
Once all these people settle onto the island, the themes dissolve into the stuff of cheesy action-adventure. It’s intermittently amusing, but largely driven by the astonishing effects work of the ever-reliable Industrial Light & Magic. There are few modern justifications for the big screen experience quite like watching Kong (played in a compelling motion-capture performance by Tony Kebbell) tussling with a monstrous cephalopod as if it’s made of spaghetti, or hurling a giant chain at a menacing lizard the size of a ship.Whenever Kong takes centerstage, the movie finds its balance.
There’s no point in spoiling the big post-credits reveal in “Kong,” but needless to say, this won’t be the last monster movie with familiar faces in Hollywood’s future. Although practical effects originally gave life to Kong, Godzilla and their destructive brethren, their resurgence has more to do with advancements in technology than the allegorical possibilities that made them appealing in the first place. There’s enough material out there to fuel a string of reboots, but the swing toward diminishing returns has already begun. Kong is a fascinating character because despite his menacing appearance, he just wants to be left alone. If only his franchise were treated that way.
“Kong: Skull Island” opens nationwide on Friday, March 10.