*. You can tell a lot about a movie by tracing its debts, or genealogy.
*. For example, you might think Kong: Skull Island is just the latest in a line of King Kong films, from the 1933 original through the Dino De Laurentiis reconstruction in 1976, to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. But actually this movie has nothing much to do with those three versions of the same story aside from the title ape. This Kong never leaves his home island and there’s no chemistry at all going on with his human girlfriend (Brie Larson). This is a straight-up monster movie.
*. If you read around a bit you might find some more interesting connections being made by the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. According to him — and, I believe, the first screenwriter (of what turned out to be many) — Apocalypse Now was the main inspiration. This really pulled me up short.
*. Reviewers picked up on this and ran nowhere with it. Here, for example, is Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, saying that what the film “yearns to be, is a pop-culture Apocalypse Now, with the human foe removed, the political parable toned down, and the gonzo elements jacked up.”
*. Hm. I don’t even get the sense of yearning. How do you get from Apocalypse Now to this? Because helicopters? The river voyage through a similar-looking jungle? Is John C. Reilly the Dennis Hopper character? Is Samuel L. Jackson playing Robert Duvall’s Kilgore, gloomy at the prospect of Vietnam being over? Is Tom Hiddleston Martin Sheen? Is Kong himself supposed to be . . . Kurtz?
*. It gets worse. Here is Vogt-Roberts: “If I were going to break it down for people, I’d say you obviously have Apocalypse Now and just the era of ’70s filmmaking, with films like The Conversation, too.” Yes, not just Apocalypse Now but the whole era of ’70s filmmaking is what lies behind Kong: Skull Island. You didn’t notice the homage to Altman? The nods to Scorsese? The reference to The Conversation?
*. I’m joking, but listening to the DVD commentary it seems Vogt-Roberts really does see these influences everywhere. In just the first three minutes he’s already looped in Apocalypse Now, David Lean, and spaghetti Westerns, not to mention Japanese comic book art (manga) and video games.
*. I don’t think any of this background is much help. Instead, I think everything you need to know about this edition of Kong is that it was the second film in a projected “MonsterVerse” that was launched in 2014 with the remake of Godzilla.
*. The MonsterVerse was a direct response, or imitation really, of the hugely successful Marvel Universe. The idea is to have a kind of interconnected series of franchises. Universal attempted the same project with its Dark Universe, launched with The Mummy around the same time this film came out. Apparently the world is too small for today’s studios. They each need their own universe to play in.
*. The template here is the same as any Marvel Universe movie. You have a cast with a lot of name stars, at least one of whom is a Brit. You have a huge budget that you blow on epic CGI effects. Then you wrap it all up with a post-credit sequence that’s used as a hook or trailer into the next instalment.
*. So that’s what Kong: Skull Island is. It’s a comic-book movie. An amusement park ride. Does it matter that we don’t care for this Kong? Not really, since he doesn’t die at the end. In any event, he’s really just a big furry Hulk.
*. Kong beats his chest. But does Tom Hiddleston’s chest beat Kong’s? He looks like he’s been working out on the pec deck quite a bit. Alas, neither of them can hold a candle to Brie Larson in a tight halter top and what looks like a Tomb Raider bra. I may seem crude mentioning this, but her boobs are hard to miss, especially after they give her character that camera strap to cut between her cleavage the whole film. You don’t do something like that by accident.
*. The cast. Larson exudes a bit of liberal concern and a lot of healthful heat. In addition to showing up buff, Tom Hiddleston manages to keep a straight face. He’s a good actor. John C. Reilly is just a clown. John Goodman is expendable. Samuel L. Jackson, appearing as Ahab, steals the show. How many times have we seen him do this?
*. I’m sure Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is tough as old boot leather, but I wonder at what point he would have considered calling off the helicopter attack on Kong. Shouldn’t he have seen what was going on and decided a tactical withdrawal made sense?
*. The script is garbage. The characters are split up so we can have more encounters with different monsters (or MUTOs, as the MonsterVerse has dubbed them, an acronym standing for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The plot is nonsense and introduces a bunch of unnecessary elements that are never explained. Nothing that anybody says is worth listening to. All you’re doing is waiting for the next monster eruption. They appear with some regularity, killing off a few expendables before being dispatched themselves in creative ways.
*. As an example of the extreme silliness of it all, ask yourself just how the hell Kong manages to fall into a pile of anchor chains and get himself completely tied up in them? I mean, how is that even remotely possible?
*. This is a movie for very young people with very short attention spans. It’s also a movie for people who aren’t interested in character development or interaction. If you liked Peter Jackson’s King Kong but thought it suffered because it had too much story and not enough scenes of Kong fighting dinosaurs, well, the MonsterVerse has your back. They’re going to get rid of all that extra fluff. Game on.