“Kong: Skull Island” is, as one character says, “a place where myth and science meet,” but it’s more like an atoll that time forgot, where monsters can get blown up and the broadest ethnic stereotypes may still proliferate freely.
The narrative opens in 1973, with John Goodman’s Bill Randa insisting that there are unexplained phenomena on Skull Island. After walking straight into a US Senator’s office and speaking vaguely about unidentified megafauna, he secures government funding. To best explore this South Pacific locale, he recruits a crew of soldiers about to ship home from Vietnam, commanded by Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who craves combat and sips Budweiser (America itself). Randa then trawls a Saigon opium den with a set straight out of a 1920’s exploitation picture and finds his (of course Caucasian) tracker of choice, Conrad (Tom Hiddleston).
From what becomes a numbing series of action sequences, the first is the best. The soldiers, the white savior figure, and a team of scientists are cruising into their landing spot when a palm tree shatters the cockpit of the lead bird. The tree is thrown like a dart by King Kong and precipitates a free-for-all of survivors on the ground. They fall into two camps: the first (the one, it must be noted, with two women in it) decides Kong is a noble protector of the realm and the second, more militaristic cadre resolves to escape the island by napalming the great ape. Packard traipses the jungle like a terrestrial Ahab, trying to out-glower Kong himself, while the pacifist photographer Mason (Brie Larson) and timid biologist San (Jing Tian) are content that their mission is principally a scientific study.
Thus the film becomes a clueless allegory about hawks and doves addressing a critical threat—there’s a lot of “whose side are you on?” posturing and cocking of automatic weapons at very large versions of familiar animals. Besides Kong, the island boasts uber-oxen, monstrous cephalopods and the skullcrawlers, two-legged superlizards that pounce from underground and really scare everyone. The movie carries at least four to five too many characters for a while so that they may serve as garnish for these apex predators.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts is a director who might be referred to, with a shudder, as an acolyte of the Zach Snyder School of Filmmaking, in which there is no action choreography that can’t be improved by slow motion camerawork (he is particularly attached to the decelerated chop of helicopter blades).
The film strains between seriousness and camp, as embodied John C. Reilly’s character, Hank Marlow, a soldier marooned on Skull Island for 30 years. In his bearded delirium, he deserves writing as purple as Joseph Conrad’s in “Heart of Darkness.” Instead he gets a lot of tired jokes about the Cubs still not winning the World Series. We learn that he’s been protected by a group of indigenous Iwi people, though they are silent and without agency throughout the film (they do wear very cool body paint).
“Kong: Skull Island” snatches character names from “Heart of Darkness” and tropes from “Apocalypse Now” but is boneheaded in almost every way. For instance, what is Hiddleston’s Conrad ever tracking? Do you really need this world-renown sleuthhound to pick out a 100-foot-tall gorilla?
“Kong: Skull Island” is supposed to be about a beast with total supremacy over his dominion, but this King has all the power of a billboard. The eyes of Kong are orange and gigantic—their irises are yards high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a CGI spectacle which passes into a canon of trash.
‘Kong: Skull Island’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 2:00. Visit www.cinemawest.com.