Even Tom Hiddleston’s brooding blue eyes can’t save “Kong: Skull Island.”
The actor spends a surprising amount of screen time gazing off into the distance ponderously, despite the fact that it’s the latest action-packed film about the legendary King Kong. The film struggles to find a tone or make use of its A-list cast, dishing up a CGI-heavy series of action sequences that amount to an ultimately bland film.
“Kong” is set in the 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War. Crackpot scientist-explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) convinces the government to send him to the mysterious Skull Island, accompanied by the hardened Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Bill enlists former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to accompany him on the journey, leaving them in the dark about the true nature of the island.
Once they arrive, the team finds themselves amidst a menagerie of bizarre, oversized creatures – some docile and some decidedly less so. Kong, a humongous prehistoric ape, falls into the second group. However, the emergence of the lizard-like Skullcrawlers blurs the line between ally and foe and the team struggles to decide who their true enemy is.
If that sounds like a lot of plot and a lot of characters, that’s because the film suffers from excess in all aspects.
The story is unnecessarily complex. The Skullcrawlers function as a second villain in relation to Kong, a choice made to manufacture an amped-up climax that pits monster against monster. The film makes half-hearted attempts at back stories for various characters, including Kong himself, but largely abandons them in favor of more action sequences.
Prehistoric animals abound on Skull Island, from a giant squid with dozens of tentacles to an enormous spider with stilt-like legs. Perhaps the film should be renamed “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Skull Island.” In most cases, the animals exist solely to challenge explorers and soldiers and generate a fight scene, no matter how unrelated and aimless it might be.
The cast is teeming with talented actors, such as Academy Award-winner Larson, making it difficult for any one character to shine. The film tries to devote too much screen time to too many characters, neglecting the film’s leads in favor of more minor characters.
Jackson delivers each line punctuated with anger and disbelief and riffs on his foul-mouthed celebrity persona for a few hilarious lines. John C. Reilly plays a World War II pilot trapped on the island since his plane was shot down, and is one of the best parts of the movie – his deadpan delivery makes even the most wooden lines and exposition funny.
But Hiddleston and Larson fall flat, through no fault of their own. The movie relegates them to the role of looking amazed or scared, something they convey well through stunned wide eyes and trembling lips. But neither character has very much substance or dialogue to flesh out his or her role.
The film can’t seem to decide what type of hero Hiddleston is supposed to be. His introductory scene feels like an audition for a James Bond movie as his character silently and meticulously beats up some rowdy patrons at a seedy bar.
But the film also seems to want him to function in the same way as Chris Pratt’s character in “Jurassic World” – a wise-cracking, drily funny hero unwillingly taken along for the ride.
Hiddleston is given inadequate screen time in order to develop either character, let alone both, leaving the lead character of the film to shuffle through without a well-defined personality.
And of course, there’s Kong, the movie’s most enormous pull.
Despite being the titular character, Kong is oddly lackluster because of the way he’s presented. Many monster movies wait to show their big baddie, a strategy that hearkens back to the days when keeping the creature hidden for most of the movie was simply a way to cut down costs.
Yet within the first five minutes, we see a full body shot of the ape, and that takes away from some of the awe and mystery. He squares off against incoming military helicopters in a heart-racing scene, but there’s nothing too interesting or exciting about the primate himself. For the most part, the film centers on the human characters, only bringing Kong out to propel large action sequences.
Making King Kong a small, forgettable part in his own movie seems impossible, but somehow, “Kong: Skull Island” accomplishes the feat.