If you squint hard and peer back past the various boots and reboots of King Kong, you might catch a glimpse of the climactic scene of the 1933 original, with its iconic image of the eponymous ape climbing the Empire State Building. The King gets no such urban experience in Kong: Skull Island — he doesn’t even get to leave the island, and his title goes from an honorific to a simple descriptor, as in the sponsored hashtag #KongIsKing.
The year is 1973, seemingly chosen both to heighten the contrast between the follies of humankind and the majesty of nature (as well as to allow the blasting of CCR at every opportunity). It’s not exactly a bucolic eden behind the mysterious storm that perpetually swells around Skull Island, though: enormous creatures emerge from the deeps on the regular, the towering Kong playing whack-a-mole with everything from gargantuan octopi to a two-legged terror that looks a little like Alec Baldwin when he stretches his face in Beetlejuice.
The fights among the monsters, though, are only secondary to this film’s real battle royale: the struggle among the various archetypes that influenced screenwriters Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and Max Borenstein (2014’s Godzilla). Conveniently, there’s a character who represents each vision of what this film might be.
Samuel L. Jackson plays “Samuel L. Jackson” (the character’s name is technically Col. Packard), choppered in from the post-Vietnam dramas lamenting that war’s futile, vengeful violence. Apocalypse Now is the obvious visual touchpoint, but the spirit is more Full Metal Jacket: kill or be killed, regardless of the collateral damage. In this case, that’s mostly off-brand dinosaurs.
Though Jackson is made to repeat “hold on to your butts,” his famous line from Jurassic Park, it’s John Goodman who represents for the Spielbergesque as the government official who leads the expedition — nominally one of exploration. He’s tasked with the awestruck gazing, but rather than the glow of Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park, Goodman keeps getting sucked into forbidding territory more along the lines of his terrifying performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane. You don’t really want to go out there, his eyes seem to say.
Then there’s John C. Reilly, who demonstrates a tongue-in-cheek, postmodern sensibility despite his character’s status as a Greatest Generation pilot who’s lived among the island’s stone-faced, virtually inert natives (“Maybe we can avoid offense,” the producers seem to have calculated, “if we don’t actually have them do anything”) since crashing his plane there during World War II. The death of a rival Japanese pilot who became his close friend seems to have given Reilly’s character Hank a perpetually bemused air, avoiding despair by making colorful comments about the giant ants.
The film’s nominal stars are Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, completing the film’s oddly top-shelf caliber of acting talent. Why cast several actors who could confidently pull off The Cherry Orchard, for what amounts to a mediocre monster movie with pretentious cinematography? Maybe it’s because the director is Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous credits (The Kings of Summer and a Nick Offerman stand-up film) suggest he’s in a little over his head with a $190 million special-effects blockbuster.
Would Kong have been a better movie if Vogt-Roberts had this cast and a lot less money? Almost certainly, especially if we got to trade the Skull Crawlers for Nick Offerman.