KONG: SKULL ISLAND is KING KONG as APOCALYPSE NOW, but nowhere near as good as that pithy definition suggests
Whenever confronted by something as dispiriting as Warner’s monster tentpole wannabe Kong: Skull Island, it is generally salutary to go back to Steven Soderbergh’s perceptive definition that you should never try to remake a genuinely good film. (Though he himself flaunted that rule with his outstanding take on Solaris.)
There is, to be sure, a spirited B-movie hiding in between the state-of-the-art CGI/motion-capture VFX in Skull Island; something that harkens back to the original King Kong’s bravura backlot hokum. But it’s all but drowned in the focus-group-guided mash-up that sophomore filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts steers as best he can through big-studio development hell. To be sure, the young director clearly has the chops; some of the film’s visual flamboyance is so staggeringly unusual for a cookie-cutter franchise-starter that it’s amazing Warners and their troubled production partners Legendary actually signed off on some of it. It’s never clear, though, whether Vogt-Roberts just wanted to make the IMAX equivalent of a theme-park thrill ride — and Skull Island is clearly gunning for rollercoaster-ride status — or do a twisted rematch of America’s defeat in the Vietnam swamps by pitting a chopper brigade (led, natch, by a Napalm-loving shellshocked commander) against the titular great ape in a tale set in 1973, just as combat operations in the war are coming to an end.
Neither full-on remake nor fully updated reboot, Skull Island floats on in a strange limbo of Hollywood discontinuity: it’s Apocalypse Now remade as Pacific Rim, planned as a tie-in in a new “colossal monster” franchise started off by Gareth Edwards’ far superior Godzilla. Samuel L. Jackson’s commander is Marlon Brando’s jungle-crazed Kurtz crossed with Robert Duvall’s Wagner-blasting colourful Kilgore (substituting the obvious 1960s classics such as Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit for the Ride of the Valkyries), and there’s even a Marlow character in John C. Reilly’s stranded WWII fighter pilot (the film’s actual beating heart, the one character that has an actual narrative arc and a personality shining through).
But Skull Island never rises above the bad taste its attempt at replaying Vietnam as a gory monster movie leaves, mainly because it doesn’t really own it outright; it’s trying too hard to have its conceptual cake and eat it too, while neglecting to give its talented cast anything to do (it’s a wonder how Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston signed up for something that merely requires them to be mere stand-ins for exotic adventure film archetypes so hackneyed they’re charmless). It’s unlikely people will come to remember Kong: Skull Island as anything other than a visually entertaining but dramatically braindead time-passer, though its trashiness is deranged enough to warrant it some contrary future-cult status.