At least the latest big-budget creature feature, Kong: Skull Island, works where it really counts: the creatures. It presents an island full of creepy crawlies and monster mashes, not merely the expected ginormous ape, but also: towering water buffalo, massive birds, a gargantuan octopus, and a family of creepy skull-faced lizards so humungous they’d leave even the biggest, meanest dinosaur trembling in their shadows. It may not have much in the way of character or personality, either for its actors to inhabit or for its filmmaking to display – it’s all borrowed from other, better, inspirations and thinned out in the process – but the effects department earned its budget and then some. It may have the colorful aesthetic gloss of an expensive A-level picture, but its heart has more in common with the junky B-movie big monkey Kong rip-offs than the lean and mean 1933 original or the epic melancholy of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.
Moving at an impossibly rushed clip – though to what end I don’t know, as there’s not much worth hurrying to that taking time to settle into the dread and fear couldn’t improve – the movie hurtles a large cast onto Skull Island. We’re told it is hidden behind a perpetual storm system, and the film is set in an analog 1973, a double explanation as to how the place has remained uncharted. The expedition helicopters over and almost immediately runs into the main attraction. This movie’s Kong is the size of a skyscraper. If he tried to climb the Empire State Building he’d crush it in a single stomp. (But though his enormity has grown, his personality, and the movie, is second rate to earlier Kings.) He quickly thrashes the interlopers, killing all the extras and leaving the Movie Stars to fend for themselves amongst the jungle beasties. Would that any of them be allowed a sliver of personality beyond audience recognition from previous roles. It’s hard to be dazzled by the destruction when Samuel L. Jackson’s stubborn colonel, John Goodman’s crackpot explorer, Tom Hiddleston’s tracker, and Brie Larson’s photographer, are merely there to pose in the pulp. They’re asked to sell unsellable empty roles, and thus hard to care about when juxtaposed with the senseless noise around them.
Also along for the ride are Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbel, Jiang Tian, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and John Ortiz. It’s a huge cast with little to do. What the film lacks in character in makes up in characters, splitting them up, sending them hither and thither across Skull Island, wandering aimlessly into one creature’s den after the next. When they encounter, say, a gargantuan log with eyes, their first instinct is to open fire. There’s no curiosity or awe here, only bloodlust. This extends to the lack of gravity given to the imagery, monsters treated as frivolous animal foes instead of creatures in their own right. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, plucked from Sundance to helm this Hollywood undertaking, loves watching the tech and the explosions and the bloodshed – and he likes seeing Kong the MMA brawler – but gives it none of the patient dazzlement of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. There is only the grubby beauty of the jungle landscapes – crudely standing in for Vietnam in the cinematic equivalent of mumbling your way through a muddled metaphor – and the drooling beasties as ILM dumps out their design book into the wilds of the frame.
Still, no matter how inane and inert the film often is, it crackles to life when John C. Reilly stumbles into the picture as a WWII pilot lost on the island for decades. He plays up the disorientation and madness of his character with unpredictable Brule-like spasms of awkward intensity and exasperation. He brags about his Kong lore, but is quick to admit he’s never actually spoken it aloud before. Single-handedly stealing the movie out from under the most talented cast assembled for something so frivolous in a long time (since, what, National Treasure: Book of Secrets or something?), Reilly offers up personality to spare. He upstages Kong, no mean feat when the sometimes-gentle giant’s every step rattles the subwoofers (except, of course, for the scene where he is suddenly in front of Larson in an open field despite what should’ve been an inescapably long, loud walk). The rest of the movie is just empty 70’s dress up run through a copycat Kaiju playbook, with whack-a-mole monsters and crudely manipulated archetypes. We’re supposed to thrill to the fussy visual touches around the edges – a crashing helicopter from the point of view of a bobble head on the dashboard; explosions seen reflected in sunglasses; a giant octopus slurped up like Kong-sized noodle soup – and forget we’re watching much less than meets the eye.