Some stuff is considerably bigger and louder in the newest iteration of the 84 year-old franchise featuring cinema’s most famous plus sized ape. The sound effects are turned up to a higher volume. Since it’s set in the mid 70s, the fashion is louder. The cast of characters we have to keep track of is more populous and filled with familiar faces. And King Kong, himself, is quite bigger. He’s the size of a building this time around. What’s not larger is the running time and that’s a good thing. It was something that hindered Peter Jackson’s lovingly constructed remake of the 1933 classic in 2005. That version ran three hours plus, which was about an hour too long. Kong: Skull Island gets the running time right (two hours) and it gets other things right, too.
I liked the fact that our title character is truly monstrous in size this time around. I enjoyed that it’s set in the Watergate era right as the Vietnam War is winding down. I appreciated the sense of humor and B movie escapism that this Kong often gleefully exudes. Yet when the credits rolled, I couldn’t shake a feeling that the idea of Kong: Skull Island was cooler than the overall execution.
The pic opens with a prologue during World War II where an American and Japanese fighter pilot crash-land on a deserted island. Confronting one another, they mistakenly believe they must only fight each other for survival. Turns out there’s another inhabitant hanging around and he’s about the size of a building.
Flash forward to 1973. John Goodman is Bill Randa, who works for a government agency called Monarch. He’s seen as a crackpot with wild conspiracy theories and one of them involves Skull Island, a remote South Pacific island. Bill convinces his higher-ups to fund a mission to the location and he takes along a whole crew of military guys. They include Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s looking for any action as the Vietnam War is closing out. There’s also British Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who’s charged with navigating through this unknown jungle terrain. Brie Larson is Mason, an anti-war photojournalist fresh from the war and she’s there to document Skull Island. I could continue listing the supporting players. There are lots of them and few of them are very interesting. This is not a screenplay where the human beings are given preferential treatment.
When the team reaches their destination, they discover they are not alone. Kong is there, of course, but so are the island’s natives and that American WWII fighter pilot who is now John C. Reilly with a beard that rivals what David Letterman looks like now. There’s other creatures, too. “Skullcrawlers”, as Reilly coined them because it sounded cool, are reptile like menaces that are the real villains around these parts. That doesn’t matter to Colonel Packard, however, as he’s determined to wipe out Kong for protecting his territory and destroying some of the Colonel’s men along the way.
While 2005’s overstuffed King Kong attempted to be a five-course meal in the giant ape’s filmography, Skull Island is junk food. It mostly knows it is. Many of the actors involved (some fun overacting by Reilly and Jackson) know it is. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts allows moments where the kitschy 70s vibe provides some smiles (watch that Richard Nixon bobblehead shaking during some helicopter escapades). The special effects are, as expected, state of the art. Having said that, I didn’t really feel the Kong we see here is much more impressive than the 2005 version, even though he’s much more ginormous.
The film may have been more effective had it not introduced so many humans and their threadbare subplots and focused instead on – say – three or four of them. Better yet, the focus could have been on the mutated animals and their battle royales. After all, the point of this picture is to eventually produce a King Kong vs. Godzilla extravaganza. In that sense, the 2014 Godzilla reboot directed by Gareth Edwards was a more satisfying appetizer while Kong is a bit less filling.
**1/2 (out of four)