King Kong stomped his way onto movie screens in 1933 as a symbol made hairy-ape flesh, both embodying and, perhaps inadvertently, critiquing white America’s fear of the savage unknown. In Kong: Skull Island, he’s bigger—much bigger, so much so that he could stand eye-to-antenna with the Empire State Building without needing to scale it—but he’s hollower, too.
That’s not to say director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the film’s four credited screenwriters (Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins) aren’t out to make a Kong-sized statement. Set at the tail end of the Vietnam War and inspired to the point of plagiarism by Apocalypse Now, it’s framed as a cautionary tale about humanity’s warlike ways, and especially the U.S.’s penchant for approaching complicated situations with guns already drawn. Among its overpopulated cast of characters, most of whom have no purpose but to hang around the edges of the frame until they get eaten by monsters, is an Army officer (Samuel L. Jackson) who sees red when Kong attacks the squadron of helicopters that have invaded the ape’s personal space and becomes consumed with the need to exact vengeance from his titanic foe. But it’s also a movie that gives Jackson a line that references Jurassic Park so clumsily that it’s more likely to induce groans than cheers and that swings from serious to goofy and back so fast that watching it is like trying to read street signs from a speeding car.
Kong: Skull Island is additionally, as its oddly punctuated title indicates, a building block in an incipient franchise, placed atop the 2014 Godzilla and forming the foundation for an extended cinematic monsterverse. (Patience, King Ghidorah fans: Your day will come.) Apart from the fact that an ape the height of a suburban house is no longer quite as impressive as it once was, the main reason this Kong seems to have been super-sized is so that he can one day step into the ring with Godzilla himself. In case he’s still not big enough, the movie makes a point of telling us that he’s not full-grown: The studio has to save some sort of reveal for Godzilla vs. Kong, which is already scheduled for 2020.
That gives this Kong more than a few years to pump iron before his big bout: Skull Island takes place in 1973 and helpfully reminds you of the time frame by blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival or Jefferson Airplane at you every 30 seconds or so. With the war in Vietnam all but lost—or, as Jackson’s character would have it, abandoned—the U.S. is in search of new frontiers to conquer, er, explore, and an uncharted island hundreds of miles from civilization seems like just the thing. The expedition’s ostensible purpose is mapping the caverns underneath the island’s surface—which is why, apart from a military escort, its advance guard is mainly composed of scientists, with Tom Hiddleston’s tracker and Brie Larson’s photojournalist along to guide and document. But once the soldiers start dropping bombs, it’s clear the purpose is to flush something out rather than simply take notes on the terrain, and that thing isn’t happy about having its skull rattled.
As in Godzilla, the monster that gets marquee billing isn’t the ultimate foe. After losing most of their number to Kong’s initial wrath, the expedition happens upon a village in the center of the island, inhabited by colorfully painted but mostly mute natives and a bearded, crazy-eyed John C. Reilly, who’s been stranded there since his World War II fighter crashed nearly 30 years earlier. (The first thing he asks, naturally, is who won the war, to which one rescuer responds, “Which one?”) Unlike the Japanese holdouts who were still fighting the war into the mid-’70s, Reilly’s straggler nourishes no animus. In fact, he made friends with a Japanese pilot shot down at the same time, although his foe-turned-friend perished before our heroes came on the scene. He warns the group that they are, in effect, “fighting the last war”—going after Kong (who, he informs them, “is king around here”) without taking account of the bigger, meaner creatures Kong keeps in check.
In other words, Skull Island is a balanced ecosystem, with giant octopi, giant apes, and giant lizard-things each having their role, and the humans have upset the balance. They’ve also gotten in the way of what could have been a better, if much shorter, film about giant apes battling giant lizard-things, the pterodactyl-like creatures who toss their prey among one another before ripping it to shreds, and so on. Even the people who aren’t cannon fodder (or “MUTO” fodder) barely register when they’re not either blasting holes in monsters or being torn apart, smushed, or otherwise reduced to goo by them. Hiddleston comes alive only when he’s in motion, and Larson, well, if this role is meant to be a tribute to “the many journalists who risk their lives everyday to share with us the truth,” as she’s said it is, then a subscription to the Washington Post might be a more thoughtful gift. Where Hiddleston seems perfectly at home in the digital trenches, gamely swinging at fiendish foes to be added in postproduction, Larson looks like she’s staring into thin air.
That leaves us with the monsters, who are, to be fair, mightily impressive. There will always be more poetry in Willis O’Brien’s original Kong; no matter how hokey the stop-motion effects of 1933 may look to some modern eyes, they’re transfixing in a way neither Vogt-Roberts’ nor Peter Jackson’s 2005 creations can manage. But a lot of care and craft has gone into these creepy-crawlies—far more, in fact, than is evident in their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Then again, that’s only fitting: It’s clear who the real stars are here and who are the disposable plot contrivances on legs. You can’t have a King Kong movie without King Kong. Everyone else is an afterthought.