How do you know a movie’s set in the ’70s? Too much CCR

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Kong: Skull Island
Now playing, wide
2.5 out of 5

I have a complicated history with King Kong. When I was a little kid, I forced my dad to take me to the ’70s remake with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Throughout the film, I repeatedly ran away from the theatre scared out of my wits, then, when I’d gathered some courage, I went back in … until the next scary thing.

Poor decision-making across the board conspired to create this early childhood trauma.

Many years later, in 2005, I gave Peter Jackson’s King Kong the coveted five star rating (in all my years in the magazine, it hasn’t happened more than a dozen times). This led to continuing-to-this-day ridicule from my mean editor, who says Jackson’s movie is overstuffed dinosaur-porn with lame characters (namely Jimmy, the infamous teen sailor). I still think this Kong works, although I’ve grown less fond of Jack Black’s shrill performance.

Which takes us to Kong: Skull Island. The new Kong is… fine. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it — fun action scenes, inventive cinematography, Samuel L. Jackson hamming it up — but it lacks the emotional factor that elevate the ape’s most successful incarnations above popcorn fodder.

The premise is an interesting one, but it’s only partially developed: a secret government scientific division partners with the military (fresh out of Vietnam) to explore uncharted territory protected by a permanent storm front. It doesn’t take long for the visitors to meet Kong, not quite a gracious host. The 100-foot ape decimates their helicopter squadron and leaves just the recognizable actors — most of whom the other creatures proceed to dispatch.

Every time Kong fights something (octopuses, giant lizards, Samuel L. Jackson’s glare), the movie comes to life. But the character development is lazy and the motivations are shaky at best: the alleged lead, a miscast Tom Hiddleston, is given a few titles (disenchanted mercenary, Brit) and expected to turn them into a relatable human being. Jackson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly coast on their long-established screen personas to superior effect. Brie Larsen’s character is also underwritten, but at least she gets to turn the token “damsel in distress” role into a no-BS self-reliant woman.

The big ape also lacks personality. Peter Jackson’s Kong may (may!) have had problems, but melancholy and sense of wonder made him compelling. The Skull Island version is as cantankerous as its predecessors, minus the longing. The result is a primate that engenders little affection, a problem when you plan to build a franchise around him. The film, however, takes full advantage of Kong’s size and the 3-D format: An inside-the-helicopter POV sequence is a showstopper.

Kong: Skull Island is supposed to be the second chapter in Warner’s Monsterverse (the first was Godzilla). The fact the studio has already announced it going to pit the ape against Japan’s signature behemoth in 2020 robs the stinger of much of its might. That said, at least they’re taking their time. The same can’t be said for that other multiverse WB is struggling to put together…  ❧