When sitting before a modern aspiring blockbuster, I often feel like I know what the pitch must have sounded like as the filmmakers cajoled a major studio into giving them piles of money to build on vital piece of the cinematic franchise. In the case of Kong: Skull Island, I instead found myself thinking about what must have enticing the actors to sign on the bottom line, beyond the promise of filthy lucre, of course. What kind of exuberance director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his collaborators must have brought to meetings in which they regaled the potential onscreen talent with the promise of a rampaging monster movie combined with the arty delirium of a winking kinda-remake of Apocalypse Now, complete with a jungle boat ride and unhinged military men. Really, who could resist?
Set at the close of the Vietnam War, Kong: Skull Island sets the requisite motley band off to explore a recently discovered island, in search of unknown wonders, photographic scoops, or one last military mission before shuffling off to unwanted retirement, depending on the individual’s predisposition. What they all find is a simian the rough size of a respectable urban apartment building. The taciturn natives call him Kong (portrayed in motion capture by Toby Kebbell, who also plays one of soldiers). He is, those assembled are assured, king around there.
It’s hard to pin down what the makers of Kong: Skull Island want their film to be. At times, it seems to be aiming for the B-movie nonsense of, say, Congo (albeit with a little more self-awareness). At other moments, I’d swear Vogt-Roberts believes he can become the Quentin Tarantino of happy junk food movies, mashing together all his influences until he has a fine slurry paste all his own. Either way, the film is sorely lacking in the panache needed to help it transcend the mere duty of holding down a key spot on a major studio’s release calendar. It plods where it should bound, offering a procession of leaden exposition and good actors in mediocre beards. (That second complaint doesn’t apply to John C. Reilly, in the designated scene-stealing role, for his beard is spectacular.)
Throughout, the mechanics of the film are off. The characters are shadows of archetypes that further dissolve into wispy nothingness, leaving the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson to gape, glower, and occasionally just plain give up in the middle of a scene. If Vogt-Roberts has little evident understanding of the collaborative art of shaping a performance, he perhaps knows too much about the visual mechanics of storytelling. He desperately over-directs the film, repeatedly establishing the most basic of facts and packing every conceivable shot into the more kinetic sequences, like a coach who wants to make sure every kid who suited up for the afternoon gets to play in the game.
Bizarrely, the rampaging ambition of Kong: Skull Island leaves it feeling dreadfully dulled down. King Kong has obviously been around for quite some time, and he keeps circling back to take a fresh tussle with the popular culture. The big ape hasn’t always been served well by filmmakers, but I’m not sure there’s ever been another point where his time on the big screen felt so perfunctory.