So, Kong: Skull Island isn't "bad", exactly. I don't know, is it bad? It's kind of bad. But the thing is, it wants to do one thing, and it does it, the thing promised right there in the title. Not "Kong" - this is closer to the dullest screen depiction of the giant ape Kong than the best, and he's kept offscreen more than you'd think, based on the film's emergent reputation as "like the 2014 Godzilla if you ever actually got to see fucking Godzilla"*. No, it's the "Skull Island" part that this film really has down pat. Find a gorgeous but ominous South Pacific island, surrounded by a seemingly eternal storm system (the Hawai'ian island of Oahu and Australia's Gold Coast play Skull Island in this, its sixth discrete big-screen incarnation - but only the second under that name). Plant a bunch of outsiders one its outskirts, and oblige them to trek into its grand, craggy interior. Have them encounter all kinds of astonishing megafauna. Like, mega-fauna.

The story whipped up for this version of the Kong legend (it's credited to John Gatins, with Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, but this has all the feel of a film that was written by around a couple of dozen studio executives more than any screenwriter) is, accordingly, closer in spirit to the old swashbuckling adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard than anything that has ever had the name "Kong" attached to it. There is, to be sure, a pretty white woman who catches Kong's eye and dramatically alters the shape of the third act, but not in remotely the fashion of the Anns and Dwans of yore. Hell, she's not even blonde. Instead, we've got sort of just about everything, and sort of not much of anything at all. The plot has a lot of moving parts, and it is a supremely busy movie, but when you really dig down, it's almost all window dressing on the basic formula of dumping a whole laundry list of characters into a place that they can be killed, one at a time. Sometimes you get enemy soldiers to do it, sometimes you get a psychopath with sports equipment and a machete, sometimes you get big damn monsters.

Anyway, Kong: Skull Island at least has the big monsters right. The visual effects in the film are quite superb, both at the level of technical execution (this film's Kong is a carefully-managed piece of animation attempting to evoke the 1933 King Kong within the realm of photorealistic CGI, and it's self-evident that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts cared more about getting him right than every other named character put together), and design. Most of the Skull Island bestiary falls into the general category of "large versions of normal animals" - the movie's antagonists, the two-limbed, lizard-like Skull Crawlers, are the big exception, and wouldn't you know, they're the worst critters here - but they are often inspired versions thereof. An early encounter with a giant arachnid with bamboo-like legs is terrific matinee-adventure fluff, a CGI killer spider right on par with the great Shelob from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, among modern creations; an enormous water buffalo-like thing that idly raises its lichen-soaked horns up in one pointless but entrancing scene is pure Princess Mononoke, and it comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Miyazaki Hayao's film was an conscious touchstone for the filmmakers.

Kong himself is a little bit bland, in part because we have, let's be honest, seen this whole routine before. And when Andy Serkis and a team of great effects artists and animators worked on their giant gorilla back in the 2005 King Kong, they set a bar that I frankly don't see getting surpassed anytime in the meaningfully near future (the Skull Island team deliberately moved away from representing Kong as specifically a gorilla, conceiving of him as a giant version of a proto-hominid, but there's only so much you can do to silence the echoes of such a milestone achievement as the '05 Kong). It's quite obvious, and not only because of the film's blatant attempt to kick-start a cross-promotional franchise, that the filmmakers wanted their Kong to match Godzilla in 2014, something unknowably remote and imposing and just so damn big. But Vogt-Roberts (a veteran of online comedy, which is strange training at least for a project like this) doesn't have Gareth Edwards's command of scale, and where Godzilla felt like a Lovecraftian Elder God slowly pounding his way across a human landscape it doesn't even perceive, let alone care about, this new Kong (scaled way up to 100 feet from his customary 25, the better to fight Godzilla in May, 2020. Ah, the joys of noisily over-planned film franchises) is just a big tall thing. He feels no more remote and impossible than the T-rex in Jurassic Park, and with rather a great deal less sense of soul-stopping wonder, to boot. Still and all, the facial animation is great, the angry simian roar is a terrific bit of sound editing, and the beast's wiry fur, mossy from the island humidity, is a real beauty of texturing. And of course you all know the official Alternate Ending policy to be much too impressed by good texturing in CGI.

All these words, and not one to spare for the human plot? Well... no. The simple fact is, the actual story of Skull Island is painfully generic, and so are the people populating it. As one scans over the cast list, a truly remarkable number of actors seem to be doing, if not their career-worst work, then at least work that they're well-capable of bettering. Corey Hawkins, in his first feature appearance since playing Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton, is the closest thing we've got to a standout, massively switching gears from that earlier performance to portray a science geek nebbish who practically has "I got my degree from Yale" tattooed on his eyelids, and providing close to the only whimsy in the deadly sober film. Otherwise, it's a mudpit of soldiers each given one solitary characteristic to help us tell which is which (like as not, that characteristic is the hue of their skin), and several joylessly terrible performances by people who really ought to know better: Tom Hiddleston, vapid beyond anything he's ever done (and love Loki though we all do, Hiddleston's not exactly an all-time deep actor); Brie Larson, who seems (justifiably annoyed) by her tedious character, a gung-ho activist photojournalist, and who thus plays her with even less than one note; John Goodman, who has a sassy sharpness in his early scene with a cameoing Richard Jenkins (as a fatigued U.S. Senator), and loses all his steam thereafter; Samuel L. Jackson, strictly on autopilot in a role that gives him only a few generic "foul-mouthed badass lines", but does manage to steal "Hold on to your butts" from Jurassic Park in a lazy way. As the sole white man living among the Shangri-La-esque Skull Islanders, John C. Reilly is at least goofy enough to stand out, though I am not sure it's to his benefit that he does so.

As for what those humans are up to: God bless it, Skull Island is attempting to turn into a treatise on America's war in Vietnam, the time period the film is set. However, it takes only a very few minutes to become clear that Vogt-Roberts knows more about Vietnam War movies than the actual Vietnam War, and so we're actually looking at a treatise on Apocalypse Now, which I guess is one way to do it. I'd slag the film a little bit for tastelessness in reducing a major international crisis to a metaphor for being attacked by giant lizard beasts, but it's really not worth it; the only thing that seems to genuinely matter about the 1973 setting is a dumbass "American politics will never be this terrible again" one-liner and a tremendously solid collection of '70s classic rock hits on the soundtrack - no points for digging deep (there are two Creedence songs), but good for staying on-message. Oh, and a genuinely terrific opening credits sequence staggering us forward from the WWII prologue to the film's present.

It's all quite rudderless, clumsily cross-cut together and devoid of narrative tension (a ticking clock is dropped in and then instantly forgotten). But it looks slick enough:  almost handsome, but appropriately held back by a commitment to the grunge of '70s cinematography, as filtered through modern digital workflows. There whole thing just kind of lies there, doing not much; but it knows how to cobble together some spectacle and at least a couple of good monster fights. A couple of bad ones, too, including the overdone, video gamey climax. But a couple of good monster fights isn't nothing.

Reviews in this series
Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)
Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts, 2017)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Dougherty, 2019)
Godzilla vs. Kong (Wingard, 2021)

*Not, you understand, remotely my response to Godzilla, which I actually think has just exactly the right amount of monster fighting (the problem is that the filmmakers picked the wrong human to anchor the non-monster scenes). But certainly, you don't have to look very hard to find that opinion.