Legendary Pictures, the company who revived Godzilla a few years back, is now trying to do the same for the classic Universal movie monster King Kong with the intentions of bringing the two together sometime in the future. If nothing else, they seem to have learned a lesson from Godzilla in terms of making sure to show the star of the movie as much as possible rather than hiding or teasing him.
After a prologue showing two downed WWII pilots encountering Kong, we cut forward to 1973 as the Vietnam War is coming to an end, and a group of scientists have discovered a new island in the Pacific with plans to send an exploratory mission. Spearheaded by John Goodman’s Bill Randa, they request a military escort, and as luck would have it, a group of soldiers led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Col. Packard, have just finished their actions in Vietnam and they are more than ready to go home. Packard, on the other hand, is ready for his next mission and remaining at war would suit him just fine. Also joining them is ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson) there to help the scientists get through the rough terrain and document the mission.
When they arrive at the island, they start dropping bombs to shake up the island’s seismic core, because Randa has a theory about what that might loose. The incoming choppers almost immediately encounter a giant “monkey” who takes them all down, stranding the survivors there and splitting the into two groups, one of military survivors following Cop. Packard, the other being the scientists and one lone soldier (Thomas Mann). The latter ends up encountering a group of natives that worship the giant ape with John C. Reilly (one of those WWII pilots from earlier) acting as host and translator, explaining that Kong is the natives’ God who protects them from even worse beasts.
We quickly see these odd-looking prehistoric lizards that have been awakened by the earlier bombs—basically a jaw, a torso and a tail with two arms--but there are a lot of other dangers, mostly faced by the soldiers still out in the wild, trying to regroup and get to the planned evac zone.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who made his debut with the Sundance movie The Kings of Summer, he’s taking a step into bigger FX movies similar to what Colin Trevorrow did with Jurassic World. (Trevorrow’s writing partner Derek Connelly is even listed as one of three writers on the movie). The inspiration of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now on the movie is so pervasive to the point that Vogt-Roberts borrows more than just ideas, but actual shots from the film, especially as those choppers arrive at Skull Island blasting classic ‘70s music. (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty should be receiving a nice check from this movie.)
So much of the film’s talented cast is wasted, particularly Hiddleston and Larson, who end up taking a backseat to Jackson and especially Reilly, who pretty much dominates the movie and gets all the laughs once his character is introduced. At least Larson isn’t subjugated to the usual “damsel in distress” that most women become when put into a King Kong movie, but the point of bringing a photojournalist on the trip doesn’t make much sense, all things considered.
There are just way too many characters in this movie, and even the ones solely there as fodder for the island’s monsters end up surviving a lot longer than you might expect. It’s amazing how many of the one-dimensional soldiers and scientists introduced in the film’s opening are able to survive their helicopters being destroyed, but some of them serve far less purpose than others. For some reason, scientists played by Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) and Tian Jing (The Great Wall) immediately take up arms and somehow know how to use them despite having absolutely no military training nor enough time with an soldiers to wield their weapons so decisively … and they somehow survive the entire ordeal. (At least one can presume that Jing’s survival is more to appease the film’s Chinese financers.)
Samuel L. Jackson is his usual badass when standing up to the oncoming Kong, wanting revenge for the number of men that he himself got killed by bringing them to Skull Island in the first place. Jackson’s fans might enjoy hearing him pull out his Jurassic Park “catchphrase” “Hold onto your butts!” but it very much seems like pandering to those fans. Ultimately, the two groups are reunited and they end up travelling through a graveyard full of giant beast skeletons where they have to survive those deadly (but silly-looking) lizards mentioned earlier, leading to a face-off between Kong and the largest of those beasts.
Vogt-Roberts does a generally decent job with the effects-heavy movie, offering a lot of cool action scenes, including that final battle sequence. For the most part, Kong is handled even better than the Peter Jackson version, maybe because the performance capture technology and CG in general have both improved tremendously in the ten years since then. Toby Kebbell pulls double duties, not only as Packard’s second in command, but also helping his Planet of the Apes co-star Terry Notary with Kong’s performance capture which goes a long way at humanizing him.
Certainly, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Kong: Skull Island, and to most, it won’t matter that most of the humans are generally forgettable because really, this is supposed to be Kong’s movie. Those expecting more substance to the storytelling might be confounded by how much is thrown at the viewer with very little point or purpose.
Essentially, Kong: Skull Island a popcorn movie that’s only good as long as you still have popcorn left in your tub, and is quickly forgotten after you’ve run out.
Kong: Skull Island opens nationwide on Friday, March 10 with previews on Thursday night.