Filmmaking doesn’t get more corporate than “Kong: Skull Island,” which scratches your monster-movie itch without ever once providing an injection of unpredictability or eccentricity that might confuse a single half-attentive moviegoer. It lacks neither fun nor polish, but it has the square tidiness of a compartmentalized fast-food meal.
From its Chinese co-star (in this case, “The Great Wall” actress Tian Jing) who’s given little to do but spruce up international marquees to its post-credit sequence promising a fanboy-friendly franchise, “Kong: Skull Island” reflects far more ingenuity from the studio accountants than the screenwriters. Unlike most of its commercial brethren, however, this is a movie that presses the buttons it’s supposed to, even if it winds up being the kind of rousing entertainment you’ve forgotten about within 24 hours.
Not connected to Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1933 classic, this “Kong” kicks off in 1973: U.S. troops are pulling out of Vietnam, and satellite photos have revealed the existence of Skull Island, a long-hidden landmass near Southeast Asia, hidden by constant electrical storms and magnetic interference. Scientists Randa (John Goodman) and Brooks (Corey Hawkins, “24: Legacy”), from a government-backed monster-hunting team known as Monarch, hurriedly throw together an expedition before the Russians can beat them to whatever might be there.
Their team eventually includes retired military man and expert tracker-survivalist Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); a helicopter squadron led by Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s clearly in no hurry to return home from the war; and combat photographer Weaver (Brie Larson). The first third of the movie features some of the most obtrusive song placement since “Suicide Squad,” to the point where soldier Slivko (Thomas Mann, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) lugs a portable turntable around with him so we can be treated to an endless parade of Vietnam’s Greatest Hits.
The score gets more intense once they reach the island and incur the wrath of Kong, who swats the choppers out of the air like so many mosquitoes. This shrinks the ensemble down to the actors who get lines and stokes in Packard a desire for revenge for his fallen men. (Rambo-style, he even refers to killing Kong as “a war we get to win.”) The survivors are divided up, and the ones who get to keep their hair clean and perfectly-coiffed (Hiddleston, Larson, Mann, Hawkins, Jing) eventually cross paths with WWII vet Marlow (John C. Reilly), who explains that Kong needs to stay alive, since he’s the only protector that the island’s inhabitants have against some really nasty creatures.
As CG creations go, Kong is a pretty effective one: there’s a sense of weight and strength to this mass of ones and zeroes, and the subtleties of expression in his eyes and movement make him very much ready for his close-up. The human actors show up and serve their function in the script (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly), as long as you’re willing to forgive soldier Toby Kebbell’s truly painful Southern accent. The biggest surprise is that Weaver gets to be a useful participant in the action rather than just the love interest for Kong or Conrad. (Although she does have a connection with the former.)
It’s just as well that the movie doesn’t try to shoehorn in a love story, since Hiddleston and Larson are operating in two different modes: he’s giving British-y square-jaw of the Leslie Howard/Roger Livesey school while she’s a 1970s Modern Woman along the lines of Sally Kellerman — in “Lost Horizon,” of course — or Jill Clayburgh.
In true boardroom style, “Kong: Skull Island” remains stubbornly idea-adjacent. It could, but doesn’t, find something to say about the environment, or militarism, or corporatism. Instead, it refuses to pursue any notions that might turn off audiences or get in the way of the next big loud noise.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) moves the pieces from A to Z with skillful pacing, but the characters are pieces nonetheless. Still, he offers up a few memorable action sequences along the way: there’s a suspenseful showdown in a foggy boneyard, and the climactic giant-monster throwdown feels more tactile and perilous than any of the robot-on-robot skirmishes from the entire “Transformers” saga.
(The director also clearly loves the 1973 analog technology, from Weaver’s camera to the soldiers’ reel-to-reel tape player. This movie has one of the most loving close-ups of a rotary phone you’ve seen since “Dial M for Murder.”)
For all of Kong’s massive presence, he has little staying power. But if nothing else, as reboots of classic properties that feature Samuel L. Jackson go, “Kong: Skull Island” is leagues ahead of last year’s attempted resuscitation of “Tarzan.”