A noble beast gets shackled, ape-napped from his island home and dragged to America in:
- Minute 84 of 1933's landmark King Kong,
- Minute 90 of 1976's Jeff Bridge/Charles Grodin/"and introducing Jessica Lange"-starring King Kong, and
- Minute 135 of Peter Jackson's 2005 prestige pic King Kong — which, at three hours and change, qualifies as the most Kong-sized of the bunch.
In the new, comparatively unambitious Kong: Skull Island, the big guy finally claims a perk of his eight decades of stardom: He gets to do the entire picture from home.
Indeed, this new colon-ized, name-and-address-formatted Kong is at its mediocre best when it pretends to be a nature documentary about Skull Island's bizarro flora and fauna. One of its most captivating scenes has the big ape bathing himself in a river — at last, computer animators have learned to make convincing water! But every time the movie threatens to get interesting, one of its hordes of ersatz, non-animated characters shows up and starts talking again.
There's plenty of top-flight talent — Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, the Johns Goodman and C. Reilly, and the Jacksons Samuel T. and Marc Evan — so it's no chore to sit through. But good luck being able to remember in two months whether you saw this thing or not. Whaddayagonnado, catch this mastodon-sized creature feature on Netflix? Watch in on a flight? (Too many air-crashes for that, probably.) Pony up for IMAX or don't bother. You won't regret either choice.
This version of the big-ape myth is set in 1973, apparently because director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wanted to remake Apocalypse Now at least as much as he wanted to re-re-reboot Kong. So we're treated to a terrific early set piece of Kong angrily swatting an assault company of Bell Hueys out of an orange jungle sky. (Not his fault; they started it.) Later on, survivors of the chopper group embark on an upriver journey on a skiff rigged together from the husks of World War II-era warbirds. There are lines like, "No man ever returns from war. Not really," and "Can you smell that? That's death."
The allusions to Joseph Conrad-by-way-of-Milius-and-Coppola are as deliberate as when Samuel Jackson (playing an Army officer who'll go full Colonel Kurtz before the movie is half over) says "Hold onto your butts," quoting his own line from Jurassic Park, 24 years ago. But the pileup of callbacks to monster movies and war pictures of old — plus the awkward soundtrack of Vietnam-era rock songs, like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle," to cite the most on-the-nose example — only makes you notice that Skull Island's relationship to pop culture is all withdrawals and no deposits.
Anyway, that helicopter company is escorting Goodman, who represents a shadowy defense contractor called Monarch, on what is supposedly a surveying mission to Skull Island. It's surrounded by a perpetually violent storm system, a "place where God never finished creation," as Goodman heaves to his governmental patron. That would be beloved character actor Richard Jenkins, who shows up for just the one scene. This kind of movie covers a lot of tuition bills, probably.
You already know that the choppers all crash — they should not have baited the bear, the poor fools — and the movie becomes a survival march to the extraction point on the far side of island.
One faction, featuring Larson and Hiddleston as a photojournalist and a mercenary, figures out that Kong is not their enemy, while Sam Jackson resolves to avenge his men by slaying the beast at any cost. Jackson was also in last summer's $200 million Tarzan reboot. (Remember that movie? Of course you don't.) At 68, Jackson is one of the greatest actors of his generation, but only Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee can coax real performances out of him anymore; he gives the same 55-percent effort here that he does in the many, many other movies he's made in front of green screens this decade. (I should point out that Skull Island, unlike Tarzan, did some actual location shooting, mostly in Vietnam and Hawaii.) The comic relief Jackson would once have provided all comes from Reilly, who's great fun as an Army Air Force pilot who's been marooned since he was shot down in 1944.
This version does away with the Kong's discomfitting-but-customary infatuation with a blonde lady, be it Fay Wray, or Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts. This Kong — a brilliantly animated creation, it must be said — looks at Larson with as much interest as you or I might show to a ladybug crawling up our arm. And while Wray's scream may be the most iconic in cinema, Larson, upon her close encounter, keeps her fear tamped down. 'Twas beauty killed the beast? Not this time! But taking away Kong's hopeless lovesickness doesn't leave you with much.
If you stick around through the end credits, a much-publicized coda will hint that Skull Island is, wonder-of-eighth-wonders, a prequel to Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla. Like Vogt-Roberts, Edwards had only a single low-budget indie feature to his credit before he was given an expensive studio assignment. But Edwards fared considerably better: Godzilla had majesty, poetry, a gathering sense of dread. Skull Island doesn't have any of that.
Nor does it possess the soul or warmth of Peter Jackson's '05 King Kong, which was set in 1933 so as to fold the production of the original RKO Pictures Kong into is expansive story. Jackson's gloss on this prehistoric material was as heartfelt as it's possible for a $200 million movie to be. (It was also scarier and more disgusting than Skull Island is.)
This latest Kong is competent but cold, steady but sterile, and doomed to a speedy natural selection from our memories.