The big risk in me venturing out to see the latest King Kong reboot was that my love for loud & dumb movies about giant monsters might be crushed by my ever-growing boredom with war narratives. Kong: Skull Island made no secret of its Vietnam War cinema aesthetic in its advertising, promising to be something like an Apocalypse Now With Kaiju Primates genre mashup. The actual film is something more like Platoon With Kaiju Primates, but the effect is still the same. Skull Island‘s main hook is that it uses the traditional King Kong narrative as a thin metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and other unwinnable, imperialistic conflicts of world-policing), declaring things like “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you’re looking for them.” It’s the same exact themes that are hammered to death across nearly all Vietnam War movies with the exact same Love The Smell of Napalm imagery (ever seen an explosion reflected in aviator sunglasses before?) and more or less the same needle drops (don’t worry if they don’t immediately play CCR; it’ll eventually happen twice). As an audience, I’m missing an essential Dad Gene that enables people to care about a very specific end of Macho Genre Cinema (including war films, submarine pictures, Westerns, and, oddly enough, the James Bond franchise). If there’s anyone out there with that Dad Gene who still enjoys the occasional Vietnam War film, they’d likely have a lot more fun with Kong: Skull Island than I did. For me, it was like someone mixed jelly into my peanut butter jar because they didn’t bother cleaning their spoon.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Kong: Skull Island is that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The cast alone is a testament to a staggering waste of potential: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, all wasted. The movie is stacked with onscreen talent, but just about the only memorable performances delivered are from a fully committed Shea Whigham & John C. Reilly, who both pull off a tragic/comic balance in their respective roles as shell-shocked war veterans. Reilly is (rightly) getting a lot of attention in this film as a shipwrecked soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since WWII and is deliriously relieved to see people who share his language & culture for the first time in decades. The biggest laugh I got out of the film, though, was in watching Whigham chow down on a can of beans and casually describe his first battle with a skyscraper-sized ape as “an unconventional encounter.” The sense of wasted potential extends far beyond the immense talent of its dispassionate cast, however. Even its central hook of attempting a Vietnam Movie With A Giant Ape seems like it was handled in the blandest, least interesting way possible. Instead of writing a revisionist history where Kong is transported to Vietnam and intermingles with the soldiers on the ground, the soldiers are transported to his home, the titular Skull Island. This sets up an echo of the exact same narrative we’ve seen in nearly every version of a Kong picture. Peter Jackson’s (infinitely more passionate) version of King Kong was released just a little over a decade ago. All this one does to update it is toss in some helicopters & flamethrowers and increase the size of the titular ape.
I’m not sure a full plot description is necessary here, so I’ll try to make it quick. The day after the U.S. declares its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, a military troop is ordered to secretly escort a geological mission to survey the once mythical Skull Island. [Scene missing: soldiers complaining that they’re being deployed instead of going home.] There’s a lengthy assembling-the-team sequence where everyone’s various motives & vulnerabilities are revealed for future significance, but no one character gets enough screentime to make any of it count for anything. Do we really need to know Brie Larson’s background as a hippie anti-war photographer to watch her blankly stare at monsters & the Northern Lights for the next 90min? Doubtful. The “geological” expedition, of course, is a betrayal, a cover-up for finding proof of a two-fold conspiracy theory: that the Earth is hollow and that giant monsters live inside it. Once discovered, King Kong is initially seen as a threat, as he attacks the military crew that bombs his home in an attempt to prove those (correct) theories. Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the gigantic ape is the protector of the island and, by extension, the world at large. He fights off & keeps at bay the other monsters that threaten to crawl out of the hollow Earth to terrorize mankind: giant spiders, squids, something John C. Reilly’s freaked out war vet calls “skull crawlers,” etc. This dynamic of Kong as a protector doesn’t really do much for the film’s central Vietnam War metaphor. It mostly just hangs in the air as a naked setup for a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, no C.H.U.D. that) cinematic universe, which is eventually supposed to link up with the most recent American Godzilla property (as opposed to the far superior Japanese one) for a pre-planned crossover film. And there you have yet another passionless blockbuster that’s a mere placeholder for a future film franchise payoff.
If I haven’t talked enough about Kong himself so far, it’s because the movie doesn’t give me much to work with. There isn’t too much new or different about the infamous beast in his most recent form. The quality of the CGI hasn’t advanced all that significantly since Jackson last tackled the property in ’05, which is kind of a big deal in the King Kong genre, going all the way back to its stop-motion animation roots in the 1930s. The ape’s gotten a lot bigger in scale (likely in preparation for his upcoming kaiju battles) and modern 3D made for an occasional moment of action cinema eye candy, but I couldn’t work up much awe or horror for the misunderstood monster, which is a problem. His inner anguish is always secondary to the soldiers’, never being afforded much of an onscreen emotional narrative outside John C. Reilly plainly informing us that he’s the last of his kind. Sacrificing the ape’s inner life for some killer kaiju battles might’ve made that thin emotional groundwork forgivable, but the giant monster violence of Kong: Skull Island is also a little lacking. In old school kaiju movies (and in more faithful throwbacks like Pacific Rim) the monsters would fight for minutes at a time, establishing pro wrestling-style narratives through the physical language of their battle sequences. Here, the fights only last for seconds at a time as we follow the human characters who navigate their paths of their destruction. Again, my disinterest with that end of the dynamic might have a lot to do with my general boredom with war movie plotting, so mileage may vary on that point. It just feels strange to me that a movie that boasts Kong’s name in the title would be so disinterested in the ape himself.
None of this is to say that Kong: Skull Island is a total disaster and an entirely joyless affair. There are some moments of monster movie mayhem that work well enough as eye candy and both John C. Reilly & Shea Whigham do their best to boost the spirit of the proceedings with some much-needed levity & camp. (I think my ideal, streamlined version of the film just be those two characters alone in a Swiss Army Man-style romance adventure on the same kaiju-infested island.) Overall, though, the movie feels like a well-funded version of a SyFy Channel mockbuster that can afford to hire legitimate actors instead of Ian Ziering or Steve Guttenberg or whoever’s up for it that particular weekend. Unlike the recent genre film rehash Death Race 2050, which applies that SyFy style of direct-to-VOD CG cheapie energy to something uniquely bizarre, Kong: Skull Island lacks any distinguishing sense of passion. I guess you could point to a smash-cut of Kong eating a human to a human eating a sandwich or the basic novelty of a giant ape fighting a giant squid as holding some kind of camp value, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given how much the movie focuses on its stale Vietnam War themes. The silliest Skull Island film gets in its basic DNA (outside Reilly & Whigham’s respective quirks) is in its shameless shots of muscular Kong ass, but even that line of putting-it-all-out-there ape anatomy could’ve been more over the top, #GiveKongADong2017. Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in the film worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.