If one asks the general question “Do we need another remake of ‘King Kong’?” the answer is obviously no. But Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Skull Island” makes clear that what we especially don’t need is this remake of “King Kong.” Loud, clumsily scripted, and boasting surprisingly uncharismatic leads and underwhelming effects, it represents a distinctly unpromising continuation of Legendary Films’ proposed “MonsterVerse” franchise that began with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 take on “Godzilla”—a better picture in almost every respect.
Unlike John Guillermin’s atrocious 1976 version or Peter Jackson’s far better 2005 picture, this one does not attempt to duplicate the full narrative trajectory of the 1933 classic. As the subtitle indicates, the action is limited to Kong’s island in the South Pacific, which in this reimagining, relocated to 1973, is newly discovered as a result of satellite photos that briefly glimpse the place that the storms perpetually surrounding it have masked until now. The island attracts the special interest of Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of a shadowy think tank dedicated to investigating legendary creatures, who asks for government support from a U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins), including a military escort.
This early portion of the picture reveals the weakness of the screenplay credited to Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. We’re first treated to a bad joke about the political climate of 1973 that’s obviously designed to reflect on present-day Washington turmoil, and then to the scene between Goodman and Jenkins, two fine actors flailing about in a sea of flat dialogue. That mediocrity continues into the sequence in which Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), an army commander despondent over the Nixon administration’s decision to fashion a phony “peace with honor” in Vietnam, is pleased to hear that his helicopter squad has been selected to take Randa and his team to Skull Island. In addition to his chief biologist Brooks (Corey Hawkins), that team includes James Conrad (Tom Hilldleston), an expert British tracker in it for the cash, and pretty but capable war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).
The mission proceeds despite misgivings about trying to fly through those island-encircling storms, making for the first major CGI sequence, and one that’s a good deal less thrilling than the makers obviously hoped. It’s followed by a first encounter with Kong, an impressive creation that might have been more effective had been employed more sparingly. He swipes down most of the copters, killing a lot of Packard’s soldiers in the process and leaving the commander bound and determined to take vengeance on the beast. In that respect the colonel seems to be patterned after Captain Ahab, and Jackson responds with one of his maniacally intense turns, not unlike the mad pursuer of “Jumper” (though, happily, without the bleached hair).
Following that first encounter, the survivors are marooned, trying to reach overland a distant location where they’re to be met by a retrieval squad a few days later. It’s a seemingly impossible trek, especially because the jungles are filled with dangers—not only Kong but giant water buffalo, huge spiders and bat-like birds. And it promises to be a rather dull one for the viewers, because Randa, Packard, Conrad and Weaver, along with their motley company of scientists and soldiers, are a pretty dull group. About the only point of Interest involves predicting who’s going to be picked off by the island’s nasty wildlife next—will it be Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Parker’s right-hand man, or Nieves (John Ortiz), the nervous mission controller, or Cole (Shea Whigham), the laconic cynic, or San (Tian Jing), Brooks’ partner, or Slivko (Thomas Mann), the hyperactive young GI, or Mills (Jason Mitchell), the motor-mouthed black one? Chances are that your guesses about who will survive will be mostly spot on, though you might be surprised by a couple of the abrupt demises.
But your attention is unlikely to be piqued by the actors, since Hiddleston and Larson make a particularly tepid pair, Goodman is given virtually nothing to do, and Jackson simply glowers (the periodic stare-offs between him and Kong are meant to be intense, but are instead ludicrous). And so one is left to appreciate the CGI action, in sequences of assault on the group that are designed to excite in the fashion of the “Jurassic Park” franchise but aren’t nearly as successful. The last reel turns to the final face-off between Kong and Packard, and the ape’s “Lost World”-type confrontation with the chief among a group of vile lizard creatures living underground, in which the ape makes common cause with the mission survivors. Suffice it to say the fight goes on far too long (though Kong’s earlier tussle with a huge octopus is fun, not only because it’s shorter but because it tells us something about his diet).
Happily, an addition to the ensemble arrives to add a dash of real entertainment to the mix: John C. Reilly shows up as Hank Marlow, a World War II pilot who—as we’re shown in a prologue—had parachuted onto the island in 1944 and been stuck there (along with a Japanese soldier) ever since, living with a tribe of natives who are under Kong’s protection. With his quirky mannerisms and equally oddball delivery, Reilly provides reams of exposition—about Kong’s loss of his family to the subterranean lizard creatures that he has fought ever since—but actually manages to make it all tolerable, if not exactly interesting; he also adds a dose of humanity to the proceedings as he inquires about how things have changed over thirty years (“Did we win the war?” he asks) and occasionally reminiscences about his wife, and the son he’s never met, back in Chicago (as well as his beloved Cubs). Were it not for Marlow, none of the team would survive; more importantly, were it not for him, the least vestige of audience involvement in the movie would dissipate. It’s no wonder that the footage accompanying the final credits is all about him—though the post-credit blurb returns to the MonsterVerse franchise, Marvel-style.
In the end, though it’s far more of a CGI extravaganza, “Kong” resembles another recent Warner Bros. effort to start a franchise based on classic pulp material, “The Legend of Tarzan” (which also featured Jackson). It’s dutifully assembled but ultimately fails to capture the spark needed to turn it into something special. For that, one has to go back to the 1933 version, though in a pinch Jackson’s will do.