Skull Island, home to King Kong, as in the original story, is filled with super-sized creatures other than just the colossal ape. There are arachnoids so large that you can’t tell its feet from the tall trees of the jungle. There is a beautiful big buffalo submerged in the pond. In the sinister dark waters nearby, a massive octopus rears its slimy tentacles once in a while. We hear a collective humming of birds, which a character warns is in fact the sound of giant ants. And of course, there are Kong’s arch rivals, the reptilian monsters lurking beneath the surface. These creatures are realized through state-of-the-art CGI in Jordan Vogt Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island. And yet, there is little sense of dread or surprise when we see them. It illustrates the problem with the movie: like the Godzilla reboot from 2014 that it is connected to in a new “Monsterverse” by Legendary Entertainment, the scale is gargantuan, but lacks imagination.
It has a star-studded cast, most of who, at best, pay lip service as though they are a part of a retro monster movie cosplay – John Goodman is the safari-attired explorer and a closet member of Monarch, the organization that wants to show the world that monsters still exist. Tom Hiddleston is a former British air-force toughie and Brie Larson is a war photo-journalist who smells something fishy in the military participation in the expedition. Samuel L Jackson is the myopic super-patriot Lieutenant Colonel. Enraged by the death of his soldiers in the hands of Kong, who was merely warning them that their bombings could wake up the monsters beneath the surface of the earth; he makes it his sole purpose in the movie to kill him. Only the John C. Reilly character has something worth feeling for. As a World War II veteran left stranded on the island who has lost touch with the new American realities(and pop culture) ever since, Reilley brings alive the most humane character of the movie.
Where Kong: Skull Island, set in 1973, could have been interesting and new is expanding on moments where it feels like a mash-up of a Vietnam War movie and a King Kong picture. We have been to Skull Island before but unlike the generic, exotic island in the early films or the misty, lush forest in Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, Roberts’ Kong inhabits a landscape that sometimes resembles a post-war wasteland. Take the monsters out of the frame and with the military-men armed with well-oiled machine guns stomping across the swamps, it could be a scene out of Apocalypse Now (1979). But the movie only makes half-hearted statements about the American aggression toward anything that is alien – whether they are monsters or foreigners. Kong: Skull Island not only wants to be a monster movie, it wants to be a monster movie in the Trump era. Fair enough. But first it should have got right the basic pleasures of the genre.