“Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”
This is the opening line of Kong: Skull Island, and it comes across today as more knowing even than it presumably did when the scene was shot. The movie, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is full of such winks, though they tend to be cinematic rather than politico-cultural.
Unlike the disappointing Kong remakes by Dino De Laurentiis in 1976 and Peter Jackson in 2005, Vogt-Roberts’s is a full-on reimagination of his subject: no trip back to the States as the “eighth wonder of the world” this time; no ascent of the NYC skyline. Skull Island is essentially a war movie, and more specifically a Vietnam War movie—there are two Creedence songs on the soundtrack—just one that happens to feature a 100-foot-tall gorilla. And while it doesn’t quite hit all its marks, it is a mostly amusing diversion that boasts some truly exceptional visuals.
After a brief preamble set during World War II, Skull Island settles down in 1973 during the waning days of the Vietnam War. The speaker who observes how “screwed-up” things have gotten is Bill Randa (John Goodman), a quasi-scientist, quasi-explorer, quasi-conspiracy theorist who has come to DC in search of funding for his latest project: an expedition to Skull Island, a mythical atoll ringed by impenetrable storms that has for the first time been pinpointed by satellite image. It is, Randa promises, “the land where God did not finish Creation”—a line borrowed from the opening of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.
Under duress, a beleaguered senator (Richard Jenkins, wasted in a tiny role) grants Randa his funding, and a team is hastily assembled: Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his full “Sky Devils” helicopter squadron, which has been redeployed from Danang and tasked with “punching through” the encircling storms to land our adventurers on the island; James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former tracker for the British SAS whose last name is by no means accidental; Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a seasoned “antiwar photographer” with a nose for a hidden story; and assorted other bureaucrats and scientists.
In a clever inversion of the usual Kong narrative, the giant ape’s confrontation with American airpower comes at the outset of the film rather than its conclusion—and this time he has his feet firmly on the ground. The dozen choppers of the Sky Devils have scarcely broken through the clouds before they rouse the King, and in a flat-out spectacular scene—half-monster movie, half-Apocalypse Now—he swats them out of the sky one by one, scattering the human characters (or at least those who survive the experience) across his island abode.
It’s one of many references to Apocalypse Now and its literary antecedent Heart of Darkness. In addition to the aforementioned “Conrad,” the explorers soon find their “Marlow” (John C. Reilly), a WW II pilot who has been stranded on the island for 28 years. He serves, moreover, in a role not unlike that of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (if less manic and more amiable), as interlocutor not for Kurtz but for Kong. (When Hiddleston’s Conrad explains to him worriedly, “There’s something out there,” he replies: “Oh, there’s a lot out there.”) There’s even a raft journey upriver into the horrors of the jungle.
There’s a quick nod to the movie that made Jackson a star when the first helicopter he radios in his squadron is “Fox Five.” And I couldn’t help but think the way that Kong dispatches one of his megafaunal island competitors was intended to recall a memorable scene from Oldboy. Regardless, the invocation of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” is a bridge too far: Dr. Strangelove has no place here, and in any case the song’s use is the polar opposite of the reference.
In addition to Kong’s initial confrontation with the choppers, there are other moments of genuine CGI wonder, such as a water buffalo the size of a tugboat and a giant spider whose skewer-like legs are indistinguishable from the bamboo stalks of the forest it prowls. And Kong himself is an impressive creation, a less tender soul than some prior incarnations but a substantially more accomplished brawler. (Even he, of course, has a soft spot for Larson’s character, who—like Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, and Naomi Watts before her—gets to lounge briefly in his mattress-like palm.)
Alas, for all its thrills and charms, Skull Island can’t help but push its luck. There are far too many characters to keep track of—including roles for Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and Shea Whigham (here, as always, vastly outshining the material he’s given). And rather than maintain a simple lets-survive-to-reach-the-pickup-point-on-the-far-side-of-the-island narrative, the story bogs down in subplots regarding a Man Left Behind and the formation of pro- and anti-Kong cliques (the latter led by Jackson’s increasingly Ahab-like colonel). It doesn’t help that, apart from Jackson and Reilly, the central performances are utterly forgettable, with Goodman in particular failing to leave any meaningful impression.
But most disappointing, for me at least, were the “skullcrawlers.” Skull Island is the second installment in Legendary Entertainment’s planned “MonsterVerse”—more about this in a moment—following 2014’s truly disappointing Godzilla. And like that film’s obsession with its mantis-like M.U.T.O.s, Skull Island feels obligated to invent a brand-new nemesis species for Kong, two-legged reptiles that live under the Earth’s crust and are just waiting for a moment of Kongian weakness to pounce. It’s not merely that these beasts bear notable similarities to almost every new movie monster invented over the last decade or two—eyes on the sides of their heads, joints that articulate at strange angles, hyper-extending jaws that expel a prehensile tongue—it’s that they take the focus away from where it belongs, on Kong himself. As with Godzilla, these creepy newcomers can’t help but convey the sense that the filmmakers felt their titular monster was somehow inadequate on his own, or even surrounded by his customary herd of dino-antagonists.
Quibbles? Perhaps. But Skull Island is just good enough—the sharp allusions, the moments of wit and warmth supplied by Reilly’s long-abandoned airman—to make one wish it were better.
Of course, Legendary will have plenty more bites at this particular apple. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is scheduled for 2019, with Godzilla vs. Kong hot on its heels. And à la Marvel, a post-credits scene teases possible future appearances by Rodan, Mothra, and Ghidorah, proving there are few things more terrifying than the early-phase construction of yet another new cinematic “universe.”
Flee while you can.