If “Kong: Skull Island” is indebted little to its cinematic predecessors in the Kong mythology, it is likely because the film is hardly indebted to cinema at all. A video game without the controller, it takes the viewer through characters and locations, switching between first-person shooter and third-person story mode. It’s a closed world with geography referenced often enough to warrant its own minimap, and the final bosses, including disconcertingly-sized arachnids, have a nasty habit of appearing from where one least expects them. Button mashing will not help here.
Shock-and-awe is the tactic of choice for this latest expedition to Kong’s domain, but beyond that the screenplay is a flimsy affair at best. A team of scientists led by an underwhelming John Goodman flies with a military escort fresh from Vietnam, led by an underwhelming Samuel L. Jackson, to go monster hunting in the last uncharted isle of the South Pacific. Between Goodman reading a script that only delivers a tenth of his usual dynamism and Jackson’s composed take on a supposedly unhinged character, the energy is left a few rungs below repartee.
And if the dialogue requires a blind eye be turned, then the plot requires genuine leaps of faith. Tapping into the tradition of military video games, which often have an imperialist flair, helicopters drop bombs as “scientific instruments” to map the subterranean zones of the island, and of course, trying to empirically explain the existence of gorillas and lizard monsters the size of buildings is always going to weigh on any viewer’s credulity.
But no one goes to “Kong: Skull Island” in IMAX 3D for the plot. They come to see what kind of CGI a $190 million budget can buy. While many 3D films often forget they have the third dimension until it comes time for the slasher’s knife to lunge out of the screen, depth in the film is delivered with such consistent immersion that the IMAX ticket is actually worth the extra bucks. With probably every shot digitally remastered in some way, the visual effects supervisors deserve more credit here than the director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an indie filmmaker with only one other feature under his belt. “Kong” is a beast of a film and clearly the work of a large tribe of technical, stunt, art direction and VFX personnel who contribute the bulk of what makes the film worth watching.
The direction itself seems to have come down with a bad case of “influence-za.” Jackson parrots his classic line “hold onto your butts” from “Jurassic Park,” and the music is a hyperactive playlist of all the songs from every Vietnam movie. Vogt-Roberts and his writing team are clearly enamored with themselves as the inheritors of the Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (even the poster is a remake!), but somehow that narrative of ’70s psychedelic nihilism just doesn’t have the same bite when giant animals are duking it out in broad daylight. Ironically, it is the not the classic cinema that the “Kong” borrows from well, but the technical wizardry of a trove of fantasy, sci-fi, first person shooter, and horror video games.
That being said, the historical-fantasy elements which have fueled such popular games as the Bioshock and Wolfenstein series result in some of the film’s worst moments. When the expedition’s photographer (Academy Award winner Brie Larson), who spent the last several years covering the war, comes upon the grave of Kong’s parents, she remarks that she has photographed enough mass graves to know them by sight. It’s a line in poor enough taste to stop the film in its tracks. Did they actually just compare the mass graves of Vietnam, a likely reference to the My Lai Massacre, to the deaths of giant fictional monkeys at the claws of subterranean lizards? It’s only a moment, but someone—an editor, a producer, the director—should have known to cut it.
Beyond that poison pill, the entirety of the film’s charm rests firmly on the shoulders of John C. Reilly’s WWII pilot who crash landed on Skull Island while he was fighting in the Pacific theater. A legendary supporting actor, Reilly’s stir-crazy performance gives the film the hint of comic insanity it desperately needed. Between cracking jokes about Wrigley Field and nobly handling a katana, Reilly’s presence is enough to propel the plot until the next big fight. It may be a two-star film with five-star VFX, but a little levity goes a long way to helping the viewer overlook the former. Even better, let’s just wait for the video game.