It is now 12 years since Peter Jackson stepped away from The Lord of the Rings to release King Kong, his respectful and suitably epic remake of RKO's 1933 classic. The film garnered positive critical reactions and an enormous box office take. While often overlooked on the Kiwi's résumé, given his various Oscar-winning forays into Middle Earth, King Kong was an accomplishment worthy of its acclaim.
In 2017, Kong has returned. Kong: Skull Island is the second instalment in Legendary's 'MonsterVerse' series, the first being 2014's Godzilla. The duo will eventually meet in a cinematic donnybrook likely to send fictional insurance premiums spiking, but for the moment, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has deployed the giant ape in a middling blockbuster that constitutes a spectacle as breathtaking as it is ultimately vacuous.
As with Godzilla, Kong's latest outing offers a cacophonous CGI blitzkrieg anchored firmly in the no-expense-spared brand of modern studio wisdom. Fleetingly entertaining, Vogt-Roberts's mainstream debut fails to match its pulpy source material. Instead it sputters, cursed by tonal inconsistencies, anaemic plotting and a stellar cast fed on crumbs.
A product of Hollywood's golden age, Kong has now been relocated to the early seventies and the fading embers of the Vietnam conflict. Monster chaser William Randa (John Goodman) receives government approval to explore an uncharted South Pacific outcrop and enlists the help of Samuel L. Jackson's Preston Packer, an embittered cavalry badass whose band of elite chopper jockeys are loyal enough to follow their leader into obvious danger.
Also on the expedition: golden girl photojournalist Mason Weaver (Oscar winner Brie Larson, stretching herself by brandishing a camera throughout) and urbane, elegant and briefly jaded SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddlestone, playing Tom Hiddlestone). No longer trudging through Vietnamese jungles on the QT for the Regiment, Conrad is now a mercenary and comes on board Randa's ramble as its tracker.
Initial scenes establish the usual clichés, few of which fit together: the disillusioned cynic (Conrad); the crusading reporter (Weaver); the believer seeking to heal his reputation (Randa); the hardened, haunted warrior (Packer); his band of wise-cracking, standard-issue grunts, few of whom appear particularly perturbed by the horrors of war in Asia.
As an event movie, few will best Skull Island for visual grandeur. It boasts lazy summer hues and golden sunsets. Cinematographer Larry Fong, responsible for the gorgeous aesthetics of 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen, paints the titular landmass as a tropical paradise, a rich, verdant idyll beyond the borders of man's knowledge.
One early standout sequence features Packer's squad plunging their Hueys through the roiling blackness of a thunderstorm. Later, Kong's great reveal, a savage meeting of kaiju and machine, will dazzle, his mighty frame (large enough to withstand Godzilla) drawing upwards against against a shimmering sunset.
Throughout these moments, laced with a wild kineticism, the excitement is undeniable. Vogt-Roberts has eschewed the usual building-destroying, skyscraper-scaling landmarks of this genre, introducing, instead, a cool retro vibe and a soundtrack to match.
The narrative thrust, however, singularly fails to match the glitz and sheen. This is a picture that desperately wants to come at Kong from a different angle, yet is plagued by a coterie of players each as hollow as the next. A limited plot sees Conrad, Weaver, et al racing to escape the island's perils, but such is the dullness of the characters that their fates never illicit sympathy. Hiddlestone is a spare wheel, his swift transformation from money-seeking, cold-eyed Sandhurst cut-out to a barely plausible hero being propped up by a tight shirt, the ability to remain posh under pressure and one ridiculous motif involving a gas mask and a samurai sword.
Elsewhere, Larson is little more than a spikier version of the damsel required for any King Kong film. Hers is a meaningless presence. Samuel L. Jackson, too, is a conundrum. Spewing Pulp Fiction-like verse as he rides his war machine into hell's eye, this is a man for whom warfare equals life. That the genesis of this rage remains murky — though it is hinted at, clumsily, throughout — seems rather typical of the overall attitude to storytelling.
Only John C. Reilly emerges unscathed. He balances crazed, eccentric and avuncular with a glint in his eye, gladly embracing his role as the jester of the piece and hitting the comedy beats otherwise missed by his co-stars. Introduced in the opening moments during a brilliant prologue, Reilly's Hank Marlow is undoubtedly the most rounded person on screen.
But what of the King himself? On the one hand, Kong is magnificent. Played, via motion capture, by Toby Kebbell (who also appears in a truly pointless role), he is imbued with a scale and power that feels impressive, conveying menace in the defence of his own patch and a singular purpose in simply wishing to exist. There are delicate moments (his nighttime gazing at the southern lights is quite at odds with the prevailing bombast) as well as points of awesome power.
Unfortunately, in spite of a potentially interesting history and relationship with the silent natives, Kong is rendered a mystery, his brutality the main defining characteristic. Peter Jackson's primate, presented with little backstory, lacked the scale of this new version but it was an infinitely more soulful, nuanced beast.
Kong's nemeses are the 'skull crawlers', a gang of apex predator lizards who come and go without context or motivation (a strange anomaly given their obvious villainy). A final face-off is expensively assembled, but cannot escape the sense that this kind of third-act meeting has been done before, with superior results.
Beautiful but bloated, undemanding but undernourished, Kong: Skull Island is a film asking little and delivering about as much in return.