For a movie in which a major character’s death is discovered when a giant lizard-monster vomits out his skull, Kong: Skull Island is a surprisingly breezy affair. It’s not so much that the characters or situations are particularly lighthearted. The film offers up plenty of wartime atmosphere and grim backstory, and the constant carnage of soldiers and explorers getting tossed and crushed and eaten by pseudo-prehistoric beasts is certainly anxiety-inducing — at least for the plastic people onscreen. But despite all that, it remains charming, insistent piffle — a monster movie that’s unafraid to be cruel while also mining the genre’s inherent silliness.
After a brief prologue set in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, the story plunges us into the waning days of the Vietnam era, as American explorer-businessman Bill Randa (John Goodman) attempts to persuade his government superiors to let him take a rushed, last-minute voyage to a skull-shaped island that’s been isolated for centuries by a ring of all-powerful storms. (In dialogue that would make the lantern-jawed hero of any 1950s cult movie proud, Randa deems this “the land where God did not finish creation … the place where myth and science meet.”)
Given the green light, off he goes to build a team. That includes bureaucrats, scientists, a helicopter attack brigade led by frustrated, hard-ass sergeant Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a roughneck British tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Also joining them is photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who is correctly convinced that Randa’s front of this as a “mapping exercise” is just a ruse — she wants to get the scoop.
As soon as the helicopters approach the island, however, they’re being swatted out of the sky and chewed up by cinema’s favorite giant primate. Crashing on different parts of the island, what remains of the team struggles to survive, reconnect and escape. As tradition demands, military man Packard and his light-‘em-up philosophy comes into conflict with the noble Conrad and the compassionate Weaver — especially after they run into Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a stranded, somewhat nutty WWII pilot who’s lived on the island for decades and informs them that Kong is, in fact, the good guy here. Turns out the big ape is the only one protecting the island’s natives and, really, humanity itself from all the other, far more destructive creatures that could (and, of course, will) be unleashed.
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Kong: Skull Island boasts enough surprises that I won’t get into what other creatures are out here. And director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and his team conjure enough wonder and menace to keep us watching: People die in creatively graphic ways, and the spectacle of brawling beasts in beautiful, forbidding settings is at times as captivating as it probably was in 1933, when audiences first gaped at Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s original King Kong.
But there’s something curiously soulless about the whole enterprise. The filmmakers continually strive for greater resonance or meaning, with that wartime backdrop and the clash between militarism and community. They also attempt to work a theme of fathers and sons into the narrative: Marlow yearns to see his son, who was born right before he crashed; Conrad talks about his own long-lost father; soldiers write home to their kids; and Packard, for all his gung-ho attitude, is also clearly a father figure to his troops. There’s even some business about how Kong lost his parents. But repetition does not equal exploration. All of this is a readymade thematic sprinkling — it suggests depth without actually creating it. You might not notice: In the struggle between sober subtext and monster-movie goofiness, the goofiness mostly wins out.
Vogt-Roberts’ previous narrative feature was the uneven coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer, which for all its shallowness often displayed moments of lovely stylization. There’s a bit of that here, too, but in the context of an action adventure, it feels less distinctive; I actually wrote the words “Michael Bay Lite” in my notes while watching the film. That’s less ominous, perhaps, than it sounds. Bay’s problem (when it is a problem) is that his slo-mo hysterics and fancy angles and swirling cameras go so over-the-top as to be distracting. The stylization here is just as pointless, but rarely as annoying. Kong: Skull Island is a B movie in a nice new suit, for better and for worse.