After fairly dutiful remakes in 1976 and 2005, “King Kong” gets a somewhat more creative makeover with “Kong: Skull Island.” Yet this attempt to launch a new franchise of creature features suffers from a weak script and uninspired design, yielding a net result closer to “Kong: Numbskull Island.”
Admittedly, nobody expects oodles of logic from this sort of exercise, and “Skull Island” does earn points for the economy of its structure. Departing from the original story’s hook of bringing Kong to civilization (with disastrous results), the action here takes place almost entirely on the hidden South Pacific island where he reigns, the alpha male amid a host of fantastic beasts.
What ensues, however, is a strange mash-up of monster and war movies. Setting the story in 1973, in the closing days of the Vietnam war, also adds an underlying “Apocalypse Now” riff to the proceedings, certainly in terms of the musical soundtrack.
“Kong” assembles a pretty impressive cast, only to leave them slumming, basically handcuffed by the periodically groan-inducing dialogue.
Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson ostensibly star — him as an intrepid adventurer recruited to lead the perilous expedition, her as a war photographer, happily spared the usual damsel in distress shrieking while being held in a giant palm.
Still, it’s John Goodman who sets the story in motion as an operative for the secret monster-hunting organization Monarch, convinced the remote island harbors something very big indeed. His character enlists a military escort, headed by Samuel L. Jackson’s snarling presence, to explore this strange land, for purposes that at first remain hazy.
Once there, the group quickly encounters Kong, who looks much bigger and less ape-like than most previous incarnations –strutting around upright on two legs a la Bigfoot. Swatting at helicopters like flies, his harrowing assault leaves the group scattered, seeking to cross treacherous, monster-infested terrain en route to a rendezvous point where they might be rescued.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, overseeing his first special-effects extravaganza, the movie doesn’t scrimp on action, from the creatures that pluck off survivors to Kong himself. The designers, though, have traded in the island’s prehistoric aspect for something visually closer to “Pacific Rim,” which somehow makes Kong’s primary foes seem more conspicuously computer-generated and generic.
Perhaps foremost, “Kong: Skull Island” feels too overtly like a bid by Warner Bros. to establish a world-conquering franchise — the appetizer for a planned feast that will include a previously announced Kong vs. Godzilla movie in 2020. That would be a rematch, of sorts, after the two went toe to toe in the 1960s. (Like CNN, the studio is a unit of Time Warner.)
“Kong: Skull Island” represents a sizable upgrade from that inexpensive, men-in- costumes Japanese version, and the abundant action delivers a few visceral thrills along the way.
Mostly, the movie gives the impression of serving as the opening salvo in a larger corporate enterprise. And while its leading man might be gigantic, in qualitative terms, “Kong” doesn’t set the bar very high.
“Kong: Skull Island” opens in the U.S. on March 10. It’s rated PG-13.