Kong: Skull Island (2017) ★★

Over eighty years after the seminal 1933 King Kong, which revolutionized special effects and changed the shape of monster movies forever, Hollywood is still mining the beast for blockbuster material, in a way becoming its own, flesh and blood version of Carl Denham, the character who attempts to exploit Kong for his own fortune and glory. In 2005, Peter Jackson’s epic, and epically flawed reimagining, opened up the mythology surrounding the beast to include the various flora and fauna of his habitat, Skull Island, in a wrongheaded move that diverted attention from the main attraction and turned the film into an odd tonal mishmash that felt more an homage to Spielberg’s The Lost World than the classic source material. Kong: Skull Island, the latest reboot, sadly continues this trend, along with the anticipation of future tie-ins with Godzilla and requisite world-building, to create a limp, mindless, product for the masses, with writing and directing befitting its winter release date.

Arguably the only new life breathed into the story is the setting, inexplicably taking place during the Vietnam war, creating an aesthetic opportunity for cinematographer Larry Fong, who brings out the burnished skies and deep jungle greens for an evocative atmosphere, but sorely lacking for purpose in the narrative. Budgets are tight, and the opening scenes show explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his scientist companion Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) begging for money from a senator (Richard Jenkins, in a thankless cameo) to journey to Skull Island to discover its treasures, using the spectre of the Soviet Union finding it first as a means to untie the purse strings. Cue the selection of the crew, who get little establishment beyond quick montages: a British special forces tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a lieutenant colonel in the United States military (Samuel L. Jackson), and an anti-war photojournalist (Brie Larson). Character names are not important, as neither are the characters. The team ventures to Skull Island unbeknownst to all save Randa, of the dangers that await them, which they run into almost immediately as Kong appears and swats their helicopters out of the sky like flies, in a dizzying action spectacle that would be the film’s highlight if it weren’t so confusingly directed.

Separated into two groups, supposedly by miles of island terrain, the film splits into two main threads, establishing the Colonel’s rapidly deteriorating state of mind in one, as he laments the impending end of the war, and his usefulness, and descends into an Apocalypse Now kind of insanity where a renewed sense of purpose finds him stopping at nothing to destroy Kong as revenge for killing several of his men, and in the other, following Hiddleston and Larson through the jungle to meet the evacuation party arriving on the other side of the island. Along the way they meet the locals, who unlike previous iterations, serve absolutely no purpose here other than as a place of refuge for the film’s primary comic relief, John C. Reilly, as a WWI soldier stranded on the island for decades, and it’s clear the film places every one of its eggs into his comedic basket, unspooling pages of dialogue for his fish-out-of-water, time capsule antics, and to provide context for all of his one-liners shown in the trailer. His presence, while intermittently humorous, exposes the film’s lack of substance, and leads to some of the more cringe-inducing elements of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts lack of confident direction.

Problems arise early on, aside from the rapid assembling of the crew and arrival on the island, with Vogt-Roberts’ inability to clearly distinguish spatial relations. When Kong is attacking the helicopters it’s difficult to know who is on which chopper, and their proximity to him, as he bats them around like matchbox cars. For some reason they just suddenly notice Kong when they are right on top of him, and their constant forward momentum, and spraying of bullets, responding to the monster’s actions, do not make sense within the confines of the space and time available. Vogt-Roberts cuts to a Nixon bobblehead at least three times too often through this sequence, which is not only lazy in its redundancy, but it eats away at the precious seconds of the ticking clock when it comes to staging the battle. Later, when the team is split, instead of launching flares immediately to locate each other, they inexplicably wait a day or so, of course because the screenplay demands it, and because Vogt-Roberts has never effectively established their distance from each other; it’s just something you’re not supposed to think about. And what might be his most egregious and bothersome error in the entire film, one of unnecessary change in perspective, comes when Reilly is telling everyone about the Skullcrawlers, Skull Island‘s poor excuse for CGI monsters that no doubt saved a ton of money they didn’t have to spend on Kong, and Vogt-Roberts actually cuts to a visual that matches his description, and it’s anyone’s guess which character is imagining this, squandering the element of surprise when the team actually comes face to face with them later on. Vogt-Roberts specifically establishes the film from the team’s perspective, and to suddenly abandon that perspective for Reilly’s is a mistake in continuity at best or a decision born of inexperience at worst.

In a 1976 interview for the Los Angeles Times, the director of the unfairly maligned blockbuster reboot King Kong, John Guillermin, said of his preparation to take on Hollywood: “I’ve been directing all over the bloody world for 27 years, learning my craft, and by now it’s dripping from my fingers. I was ready for Kong and it was a lovely opportunity.” Forty years later, his quote, I believe, is a telling indictment for why Skull Island is such a colossal failure. At the time of the interview Guillermin had more than thirty feature films under his belt, most from his home in the United Kingdom, and only then did he feel ready to tackle the pressures of the big studio system here in the United States. How many did Jordan Vogt-Roberts have? One indie drama, and a stand-up comedy film. It can be done; Colin Trevorrow only had one feature length indie drama under his belt before helming Jurassic World. But some filmmakers are just not ready for prime time, no matter how successful their character-driven art house debuts, and Vogt-Roberts’ massive failings with Skull Island point in that direction.

Certainly the screenplay carries a lot of the blame as well. Any one of these characters could be removed from the film and it wouldn’t change a single thing, except perhaps Jackson, who I spent most of the film wishing would be removed. But when the only important character in the film makes you repeatedly think of another, legendary, iconic film and performance, and his actions stick out like a sore thumb amidst a melancholy narrative that is more concerned with exploring the dangers on the island, it feels like his entire situation was grafted on, to overlay some form of human drama on the proceedings, because that’s what is expected. But he’s not really human; he’s ultimately just a gimmick, wound up by the clockwork rhythms of the script instead of any believable internal struggle.

Kong: Skull Island will be a huge hit. It will do what it was designed to do, and launch a new shared cinematic universe, along with endless sequels, and provide its uninteresting actors with a new franchise to cash paychecks from for years. Nothing about this film is original or daring or surprising, and that’s okay, not all films have to meet those expectations. But it should at least be competent, and offer the illusion that some care went into the story and characters, and not just become a demo reel for one of its supporting characters. I don’t fault Reilly; aside from the cinematography he’s the best thing in this. He’s the only one who bothered to show up, either behind or in front of the camera. Expect more far-fetched contrivances to get him back to the island in the inevitable sequel. Hopefully Warner Bros. will find a writer and director interested in telling and showing a story, instead of ticking off the blockbuster checklist.

The Verdict: Pan