The idea of moving a monster movie like King Kong into the 70s is inspired. It’s 1973 and the Vietnam War is starting to wind down. A group of scientists, led by John Goodman, convince the government to get them a military escort (aka hitch a ride) to the mysterious Skull Island for a couple days of exploring. Described as a sort of Bermuda Triangle surrounded by its own violent weather system, the island has not been mapped (no Google Earth in the 70s!).
Of course we, the audience, know that one building-sized ape happens to already live on Skull Island and may not be pleased with having visitors. In a thrilling scene, dozens of army helicopters are knocked from the sky by Kong, with the burning red sun silhouetting his best profile, leaving a couple handfuls of survivors, both soldier and civilian. The soldiers are led by Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who is triggered into a Ahab-like quest to obliterate the while whale/ape that murdered his men. The civilians are of course more logical, including Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad, a “tracker” who really offers nothing except “follow the river” and “let me climb up so I can see,” and fresh-from-her-Oscar-win Brie Larson as Mason, an “anti-war” photographer who has thick, lovely 70s hair and knows a scoop when she sees one. And the scientists? Interchangeable with their blue jackets, they are just there to be picked off (including my favorite offing, where one guy gets carried off and pulled apart by pterodactyls).
Kong: Skull Island is weirdly uneven. It’s puffed up, proud of its B-movie heritage, while at the same time very earnestly wants to wow you with special effects. And wow, it does. I couldn’t help but notice that this Kong surpasses Peter Jackson’s other recent incarnation. I’m not sure if it is that this CGI Kong has more heft, depth, and believability, but this Kong really shines whenever he is on screen. Whether battling various beasties including a giant octopus and snappy skull-headed creatures that apparently live in the hollow of the earth or scooping up a lake-full of water in his palm for a drink, this Kong looks great.
As for the rest though? With its clunky “humorous” (aka not that funny) dialogue and clichéd characters, it’s a bore. Jackson, with his squinty-revenge-eyes, is over the top in his typical typecast role. The soldiers and scientists don’t make any impression. Goodman comes and goes onscreen. And Hiddleston (with his lithe frame and small t-shirt) and Larson (with her lithe frame and small tank top) are really there just as earnest and dull eye-candy. Human-wise, the only real spark is John C. Reilly, as an American World War II pilot who has been stuck on the island for three decades, who knows Kong, and knows the dangers of the island. He is really the only character that is funny, and the contrast is so great that it seems like he is in a different, better movie.
But movies like Kong don’t have to be good, they just have to be BIG. And this is a big, loud, crashing movie. If you love it, wait for the end of the closing credits… there are teases of more to come.