Neither a true remake nor a direct sequel, Kong: Skull Island is more of a reimagining: what if Apocalypse Now had a giant gorilla in it? The result is not as ludicrous as the pitch. During the U.S.’s withdrawal from Vietnam in ’73, a team of scientists and soldiers are sent to a newly discovered island to conduct a “geological survey.” Hired on as a tracker is ex-British Special Forces James Conrad (Hiddleston). Also aboard is Mason Weaver (Larson), a self-proclaimed “anti-war photographer.” They round out the crew lead by Lt. Col. Packard (Jackson), a career soldier inwardly relieved to be given one last mission, and William Randa (John Goodman) the government Man who knows the true reason for this perilous expedition. His secret isn’t kept for long. As the unfortunate fodder fly over the gorgeous Skull Island, they almost immediately encounter the gargantuan Kong.
This movie reinvents the Kong of previous films by making him a true movie monster. No longer constrained to the anatomy of a real gorilla (albeit a giant one that can climb buildings) a la Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, the king of Kong: Skull Island is a bipedal beast as tall as a building. The visual effects in this film are fairly astounding. The CGI is used to make impossible creatures come alive, but not to make them do impossible things. Interspersed between—and sometimes during—the action sequences are some artistic and visually arresting shots rare for this kind of popcorn pic, but this bonus is tempered with an over-reliance on jump scares.
Though the spectacle alone makes for an exciting adventure, it isn’t enough to carry the dead weight of so many talented actors in so many uninspired roles. John Goodman seems downright bored, and Samuel L. Jackson, famous for his infectious fury, never exercises it despite being the only character with a personal vendetta against Kong, checking the box for the cliché “man vs. monster: which one’s which?” Hiddleston and Larson are serviceable, though unexceptional, when both have proven they can be quite the opposite. The lesser-knowns play far more interesting characters, though none so much as John C. Reilly. As a WWII pilot marooned on the island for the past 30 years, Reilly is perfectly cast, carrying both the humor and the heart of the film on his deft shoulders.
This is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ first big-budget film, following an indie success with The Kings of Summer and some episodes of You’re the Worst. On the podcast Doug Loves Movies, Vogt-Roberts recently expressed a love for “interesting failures,” i.e. overly ambitious projects that fail gloriously. Kong: Skull Island almost achieves that rare blend, but falls short for the better.