‘Kong: Skull Island’ – Same Kong, New Problems

King Kong looks great but is hobbled with a generic script interested in borrowing from the past with no regard for the present.

Next year will mark 85 years since audiences were first dazzled and awed by the behemoth known as King Kong. Since then, Kong’s gotten bigger, gaudier and somehow chintzier than he should be. In 2005 Peter Jackson attempted to revitalize King Kong, but only succeeded in showing the ape’s story wasn’t built for an over two-hour film. Unfortunately director Jordan Vogt-Roberts hasn’t learned from Jackson’s mistake. A franchise like this, whose roots run so deep into cinematic history, becomes too colossal an undertaking for the neophyte director (whose previous experience was with the fun summertime comedy, Kings of Summer). There’s life in the old ape yet, but he sinks like the Titanic – a reference you’d be surprised isn’t made in the film.

It’s 1973 and an expedition is tasked to visit the last uncharted area in the world, the appropriately named Skull Island. Once there, the group comes up against the island’s “king,” the ape Kong. Stranded on the island, the explorers soon discover Kong isn’t the only one to fear.

There’s nothing wrong with a big, dumb monster movie. It’s just that Kong: Skull Island is extra big and super dumb. The basic tenets of a pleasing creature feature are present and accounted for: a host of large creepy crawlies, a foreign locale, and just enough blood to get that PG-13 rating. The various creatures trotted out often feel like carbon copies from past films. At one point Kong rips open a lizard creature’s jaw in a scene directly translated from Jackson’s 2005 remake.

Others, like the overly large bison/water buffalo creature look good, but do little to give us a sense of the island itself. We know there are pterodactyl birds, but the presence of average deer implies not all the animals are evolved. After making the delightful Kings of Summer, it’s questionable why Vogt-Roberts was picked for this. His camera trickery is proficient but he’s overly reliant on slow-motion and fire shots than telling a compelling story.

At times the film’s ten little Indians structure plays out like a pleasing horror movie, as audiences’ wonder who is the next victim. This horror-movie mentality could explain why the characters are drawn so transparently. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are far too good for this, and their roles as the hero and “the girl” give them nothing more than looking gruff and dominant, and taking photos, respectively. Neither actor is bad, just ridiculously unnecessary. The rest of the characters are various army members who talk as if they’re auditioning for the role of Jay Baruchel’s character in Tropic Thunder.

None of the characters’ deaths hold any significant weight, and what ones do are because of the recognizable actors involved. John C. Reilly is darling as marooned pilot Hank Marlow. His storyline attempts to draw a parallel from this film to the ’33 original and is infinitely more fascinating than what we’re presented with. Other actors may have recognizable faces in a “Hey, didn’t I see them in something” way, but they’re too often introduced, given a rote set of stakes (two weeks from retirement; I have a wife and child) and die quickly. Their deaths register little more than a “Aw…what was that character’s name?”

Similar to the likes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story it’s worth questioning whether the editing process removed moments where the audience could bond with the characters. John Goodman as scientist Bill Randa acts as the catalyst who gets the group to Skull Island. He wants to prove that monsters exist (because apparently the aliens in 10 Cloverfield Lane weren’t enough for him). However he quickly exits the narrative with little more than a whimper, leaving the audience to wonder if someone couldn’t afford his fee. The film’s ultimate human villain comes out of nowhere, and only to serve the grander purpose of making this an ape-based remake of Apocalypse Now.

Make no mistake, Kong: Skull Island fails by possessing a script seemingly written by South Park’s Member Berries. Based on the chronic references Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly have only seen two movies prior to this: Jurassic Park and Apocalypse Now. And these aren’t minor, subtle callbacks either. It’s remarkable that Marlon Brando’s CGI corpse isn’t brought back to say “Welcome to….Skull Island.” Samuel L. Jackson, whose dialogue is comprised of “Samuel L. Jackson lines,” says “Hold onto your butts” at one point.

Other references include chronic callbacks to the decade with Jackson (again) being hobbled with the line about needing to “break on through to the other side.” The fact that the song doesn’t immediately play is the film’s only show of restraint. Much like the maligned Suicide Squad, Skull Island hopes you’ll buy the soundtrack right after as ever scene is filled with at least 2-3 Vietnam-era songs playing. A character brings a portable record player just to allow for more songs in scenes of action and suspense.

Kong: Skull Island falls into the hole Marvel dug several years ago, which is to say the movie is 90% building towards a sequel. Though the hairy guy should be front and center, Kong seems lost in his own story. Based on the after-credits stinger there’s no hiding the misguided belief that Kong will really come into his own two movies from now. It’s a shame, as the Kong character is often misunderstood, and here he’s little more than a nuisance for the human characters. He often stumbles into events to either prove the island is large enough for him to never notice them, or that the script isn’t interested in him. By the time the villain declares war on Kong, the motivations make no sense considering everyone’s died at other creatures’ hands…or claws.

It’s not beauty that killed the beast but marketing gimmickry. Kong: Skull Island is nothing more than a method of continuing Legendary’s Monster Universe. Underwritten when it isn’t playing pop culture Mad Libs, a trip to Skull Island ends up being a pretty, but wasted opportunity.