Kong: Skull Island
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Opens March 10
For better and for worse, Kong: Skull Island is very much a King Kong for our time. Gone is the horror-movie atmosphere of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original 1933 King Kong and the unabashedly cheesy romanticism of John Guillermin’s 1976 remake. Peter Jackson tried to combine both those qualities in his elephantine 2005 version, and no image in the film summarizes Jackson’s earnest attitude than that of his Kong sliding around on a skating rink with Naomi Watts like a child without a care in the world.
You’ll look in vain for such endearing innocence in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s new incarnation of the King Kong myth. Instead, geek-show CGI creatures and special effects are everything, the way they usually are in such Hollywood blockbusters these days. There aren’t even any sparks of romance to speak of here. Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is the closest the film gets to its own Ann Darrow, and even then, Kong lavishes on her more the affection a protective brother would have towards a dear sister. This Kong feels more at home smashing up all those bird-like “Skullcrawlers” that threaten his existence, which seems fitting for an industry more at home with violence than with sex.
What it lacks in forbidden sexuality, Kong: Skull Island tries to make up for with gestures toward semi-religious allegory and political commentary. The film opens in 1944, with an American and a Japanese soldier, both of whom have crash-landed on what turns out to be Skull Island, chasing and fighting each other until Kong rears his gigantic head above them. Fast-forward to 1973, and scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) and second-in-command Houston Brooks’s (Corey Hawkins) mission to find new life forms in Skull Island becomes a stealth replay of the Vietnam War, with mostly American forces intruding on yet another foreign territory and paying dearly for their imperialism thanks to Kong. For the Col. Kilgore-like Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), though, Kong becomes his Moby Dick as he finds in his destruction a golden opportunity for him to salvage a victory out of the Vietnam defeat.
On the other side of the spectrum is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly)—the American soldier seen in the film’s opening sequence who has lived on the island ever since and has thus come to understand Kong’s true nature. Kong: Skull Island thus becomes a tug-of-war between Marlow’s empathy versus Packard’s demonization, all in the face of a God-like force who could care less about the relatively petty concerns of these mere mortals. All of this probably relevant in the Age of Trump (though, these days, what work of art and entertainment isn’t, however unintentionally?), but that’s about as sophisticated a commentary as you’re going to get here. Besides, it’s hard to take any of its pleas for human understanding seriously when the characters in this large ensemble mostly come off as cannon fodder at best.
At least Reilly seems to be having fun: He not only gets the funniest lines in Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly’s script, but delivers them with an offhand relish that suggests he’s not taking any of this seriously. But then, neither are the filmmakers, really. You want King Kong beating up on creepy-crawly CGI creatures? You got King Kong beating up on creepy-crawly CGI creatures. Kong may be God to the humans in the film, but the only God Jordan Vogt-Roberts & co. seem genuinely interested in serving is that of The Almighty Dollar.