“Mark my words,” says government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) as he reads news about Watergate in 1973, “there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” This clumsily winking aside to audiences, an attempt to give Kong: Skull Island a spark of modernity by making it feel relevant to our current political climate, is emblematic of a film that can’t even capture its ’70s setting without indulging tediously literal-minded clichés and featuring overused period songs on its soundtrack. Randa, head of a covert government agency, gets approval for an expedition to an uncharted Pacific island by appealing to fears that the Soviets may otherwise get there first. Naturally, he has the unqualified support of the leader of his military escort, Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career soldier who feels personally betrayed by the U.S. bugging out of Vietnam. America didn’t lose the war, Packard insists to the equally simplistic anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), but rather abandoned it, a distinction that only a person like him can recognize.
No sooner does the team of scientists, soldiers, and adventurers reach the island than they encounter Kong, who promptly fends them off by destroying every helicopter and killing most of the men. This Kong is colossal even by its usual standards. In 1933, it scaled the Empire State Building, and here the beast looks as if it could use the skyscraper as a walking stick. The ape is so huge that it becomes comical, looming so ominously over the giant trees of the island’s rainforest that it at no point looks like a natural fit in its own natural habitat. Throughout, Kong is less terrifying for its brute force or berserker rage than its inherent impossibility of existence; it’s as if its only natural predator were the force of gravity. The beast devastates the humans in what feels like seconds, and the scene of its carnage is so cataclysmic that it feels better suited to the film’s climax than the creature’s introduction.
Too often, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts falls back on cheap gore to convey subsequent attacks by other monsters on the island, mistaking the repulsiveness of the deaths for actual terror. The most notable of these involves a scene in which a giant spider impales one man from the mouth to his bottom, eerily recalling the famous impalement scene from Cannibal Holocaust that got its filmmakers brought up on charges of obscenity and later murder. But despite the gruesomeness of that image in the moment, the spider never feels fearsome. Even the creatures intended to truly burrow themselves into the audience’s nightmares, like a reptilian species with clacking skulls for faces, razor-sharp teeth, and prehensile tongues, are less wonders of imagination than of size. To be torn apart by such a thing would be to suffer the parting indignity of being consumed by a loner 12-year-old’s mildly unsettling notebook doodles. These creatures feel half-finished, from their confusing gait to their inane nickname: the “skullcrawlers.”
Compare the monsters here to those from Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Like Vogt-Roberts, Jackson largely jettisoned overarching themes to focus on spectacle, but Jackson’s loving tribute to Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 original bursts at the seams with the imagination of a dedicated fan. His Kong, animated with technology less developed than the sort available to Vogt-Roberts, is still infinitely more expressive, and the restriction of the ape’s screen presence makes its action-packed appearances all the more thrilling. Furthermore, the other monsters in Jackson’s film were equally inspired. Indeed, nothing in Kong: Skull Island approaches the strangely mesmerizing beauty and genuine horror of the scene from King Kong where huge bugs slither and crawl all over the story’s characters.
An ambush in a pit filled with toxic gases and the skeletons of other Kong-like apes shows off a modicum of panache in the way sickly green fog hides the movement of the skullcrawlers and amplifies the impact of their surprise attacks. But even the handful of shots that resonate are spoiled by how insistently the filmmakers lean on them to be memorable, and that so little underpins the conflict in the film means that neither the action nor its lulls have any anchor. And by the film’s end, the standout element turns out to be John C. Reilly, who shows up as a long-marooned pilot driven loopy by his time on the island. Reilly has always been up to debase himself for a laugh, and his affably fatalistic demeanor here is genuinely funny, as when he greets squad members and enthusiastically exclaims how happy he would be to die with them. Where the other actors dutifully convey seriousness and malignant insanity, Reilly treats the material with the goofy detachment it deserves, marking him as the only consistently pleasurable aspect of the film.