Kong: Skull Island Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Now that King Kong is being set up to fight Godzilla (as part of the giant-monster-based cinematic universe Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are building), he gets some added political relevance in Kong: Skull Island, a 1973-set reboot that places the massive ape alongside his lizard counterpart as a symbol for social unrest. Here, Kong is the misunderstood other being fought in the jungle just as the Vietnam War is ending, but the movie’s period detail mostly amounts to retro fashions and some obvious soundtrack choices. Skull Island is an action movie first and foremost, with its social commentary mostly used just as superficially as its overqualified cast.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining, and if nothing else it’s livelier and far more concise than Kong’s last big-screen outing, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the 1933 original classic. It’s also far more action-oriented than the 2014 American take on Godzilla that’s been retrofitted into its continuity, with references to the sinister Monarch organization and a fan-baiting post-credits scene. After a bit of throat-clearing to gather a motley crew of scientists, adventurers, soldiers and opportunists for a trip to the newly discovered, previously uncharted Skull Island, the movie wastes little time in delivering its title character, who’s now nearly as tall as the Empire State Building he famously scaled in his first appearance.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ only previous feature is the mediocre indie dramedy The Kings of Summer, but he proves adept at staging large-scale action and wrangling complicated special effects. From the moment Kong appears onscreen, the movie delivers near-constant action, and the island is filled with brilliantly rendered monstrosities, including giant spiders, lizard-like underground creatures and a supersized variation on the walking-stick bug.
In contrast, the humans are almost an afterthought, and the movie squanders the talents of Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman, among others, in one-dimensional roles. Only John C. Reilly, playing a pilot stranded on the island for decades, gets to shine, providing much-needed comic relief and a little poignancy. He’s a beacon of humanity in a movie otherwise successfully focused on pounding its humans into pulp.