The most iconic ape in movie history gets his least inspired major outing in "Kong: Skull Island." A Frankenstein's Monster of stitched together war movie cliches, perfunctory creature feature business, out-of-place comedy, laborious world-building and references to better movies, the film is a huge step down from Gareth Edwards' mythic, gorgeous "Godzilla," the first outing in the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse that will tie the big green guy, Kong, Mothra and company together. In an attempt to make the series more palatable to the crowd that complained the Edwards' film moved too slowly and showed too little of the monster, they've robbed the beasts of their grandeur and left a howling void.
The latest doomed expedition to Kong's home is led by John Goodman as a government official trying to prove the existence of monsters...but not bothering to tip off the U.S. helicopter squadron (led by Samuel L. Jackson) serving as his escort. Tagging along for the ride are a British Special Air Force Captain turned mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) hired as a hunter-tracker, and an anti-war photographer (Brie Larson) hired to document the journey. When Kong brings the helicopters down after they drop explosives, Jackson vows revenge for the deaths of his men, despite warnings from a stranded World War II pilot (John C. Reilly) that Kong is the only thing keeping them safe from more dangerous monsters living underground.
The film is set in 1973, primarily as a way to set up Vietnam War parallels that never amount to more than the dopey substitution of King Kong for the Viet Cong (or, as a critic friend of mine indelibly put it, "VietKong"). Using movie monsters as stand-ins for national trauma is nothing new — the original Japanese "Godzilla" was borne out of lingering fear of nuclear fallout — but the ideas are weightless here, primarily because director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the film's multiple screenwriters seem to be less interested in the Vietnam War and more interested in Vietnam War movies and their soundtracks.
A novice director puzzlingly plucked indie obscurity to blockbuster world (having directed the modestly successful "The Kings of Summer"), Vogt-Roberts includes references to "Platoon," "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now," as well as calls to other blockbusters (Jackson repeats his famous "Jurassic Park" line "hold onto your butts") and horror movies (a truly jarring throwback to "Cannibal Holocaust"). None of these add up to a personal sensibility or coherent take on the "Kong" character, and the direction of the action scenes is competent but unmemorable. Where the original film was a primal monster movie, the '70s "Kong" an enjoyable cheesecake romantic adventure, and Peter Jackson's take a grand evocation of Old Hollywood in Jackson's epic style, this is largely anonymous homage.
Those self-conscious references fit oddly with the film's self-serious but underdeveloped Vietnam plotline, which is a strange pairing with the film's generic monster movie beats (more "Jurassic World" than "Jurassic Park"), which is a stranger fit still with the oddball (and sometimes surprisingly mean) humor that occasionally finds its way into the film. The production had four credited screenwriters, from "Godzilla's" Max Borenstein to "Nightcrawler's" Dan Gilroy, and the resulting film feels like four screenplays smashed together. The actors take their cues from different sections of the script, with Goodman playing a more generic take on his megalomaniacal "10 Cloverfield Lane" character, Jackson acting like he's in a particularly glum war movie, and Larson and Hiddleston looking generally at sea. Only Reilly, feeling airlifted in from one of his goofy comedies, manages to inject much life or heart into the film. It would have been nice to see "Kong" take his cue, or, indeed, take any one of the film's tracks. But that would have required a vision beyond "I like Apocalypse Now."