“Apocalypse Now” meets kaiju in “Kong: Skull Island,” one of many renditions of the monster ape. While it isn’t a masterpiece like the 1933 original or the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, this reboot opens new doors for the beloved character.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts transports the Kong tale from the Great Depression to the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. With the help of the American military personnel stationed in the Pacific, explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) organizes an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island to prove that ancient monsters exist.
Joining the team are James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS tracker and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Oddly enough, Hiddleston and Larson play the dullest, most perfunctory
characters of the film’s ensemble cast, even though they are some of Hollywood’s biggest names. The film fares better when it focuses on Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a soldier who doesn’t know how to live without war and his colorful subordinates, who are delightfully engaging thanks to their strong banter and personalities. Unfortunately, the roster of heroes balloons to an
unwieldy size so quickly that only a few of them receive proper development.
This expeditionary force arrives at Skull Island and begins dropping bombs to make a seismic map of the terrain. Their intrusion draws Kong into the open. Vogt-Roberts briefly revels in the awe of the majestic titanic primate, and then the massacre begins. Kong swats helicopters out of the sky like flies and crushes their passengers like ants. One thing is clear: this Kong can’t climb the Empire State Building — he’d break it.
Kong’s attack scatters the characters across the island and kills many of Packard’s men. Driven to madness, Packard becomes the Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick and leads his men on a suicidal mission to destroy the ape. Their journey takes them through a terrifying jungle filled with legions of creatures out to spill blood.
Meanwhile, Conrad and Weaver meet up with Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who crashed on Skull Island three decades ago. The film delves into Marlow’s tragic back story and his dream of returning to his family, and he ends up becoming the most fully-formed character. Reilly ultimately shoulders much of the film’s comedic weight and its emotional drama.
Through Marlow and Packard, “Kong: Skull Island” occasionally speaks to the devastating costs of war, but its stabs at relevance are distractingly clunky. The movie works best when the plot moves quickly, such as when Conrad, Weaver and Marlow team up to stop Packard from killing Kong. Their reason: He is the only beast on the island who can defeat the Skull Crawlers, dinosaurian lizards that would escape to the outside world if left unchecked.
Watching Kong beat the snot out of the Skull Crawlers is pure joy. His brutal but efficient fighting methods are driven by rage at the Skull Crawlers that killed his parents. This Kong isn’t a drastic departure from previous versions, as he was never just any mindless beast. Kong might scowl and roar, but he’s often more human than the main characters. This iteration acts as the lonely defender of Skull
Island, protecting its inhabitants from harm. Weaver recognizes this in a scene where Kong saves a massive ox trapped beneath a helicopter wreck, and she later forms an understanding with him that recalls Kong’s earlier days of psychosexual romance.
Weaver won’t get much action with this Kong though, because he’s got bigger fish to fry in the MonsterVerse, in which he will face off with Godzilla and other kaiju. Looks like beast doesn’t need beauty anymore.