Overblown in almost every respect (not only its giant ape), Kong: Skull Island is the kind of Hollywood fever dream that, in its first few minutes alone, throws at you a WWII bomber crash, a sizzling montage of Cold War nuclear escalation and a wide-eyed John Goodman gushing about a 'place where myth and science meet'. (He should be a screenwriter.) It’s 1973 and his character, a government-funded conspiracy nut, is talking about weather-shrouded Skull Island, deep in the South Pacific and only recently discovered by satellite. Soon, a detachment of tech nerds, soldiers, a brawny tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and an ambitious photojournalist (Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for Room), will be dispatched there to either gather undiscovered plants or – as we all suspect – become monkey bait.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts with a gleeful, look-at-me-ma garishness that speaks to his background in TV comedy, the movie feels wonderfully close to self-parody. When it’s a Vietnam War picture (which is often), we get every glorious cliché in the book, from slo-mo helicopters against a huge red sun to an endless stream of grungy rock nuggets by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And when the monsters do show up, it’s like we’re in the sandbox with the most imaginative 10-year-old: people get stomped, burning machinery gets flung for miles and giant spiders and vomiting lizards make up a parade of gooey spectacle. The effects work is always easy to follow; it’s a movie made for wrestling fans ready for the main event.
Yet for all its updated bluster, this update still can’t escape the shadow of 1933’s magical King Kong. You still hope for that classic psychosexual tension between woman and ape; it’s a disappointment that Larson only rides the hairy paw once – and she hardly seems in thrall of the experience. (Meanwhile, Hiddleston’s man of action is just as bland as any human hero who’s ever competed with Kong for animal magnetism.) Stay through the credits and you’ll get a hint of the fantastic beasts yet to come. Let’s hope that next time, the filmmakers remember to bring a touch of tragedy as well. It’s not a proper creature feature without a little pain.
By Joshua Rothkopf