KONG: SKULL ISLAND | ★½

Ever wonder what a monster movie almost entirely devoid of awesomeness might be like? If you’re thinking of 2014’s “Godzilla,” you should click away from this review. It turns out that Gareth Edwards’s decision to take his sweet time to reveal Japan's atomic-breathing legend is far more effective than plastering America's hairy giant into the picture at random as Jordan Vogt-Roberts does in “Kong: Skull Island.” Now that every major studio is hellbent on catching up to Marvel with their own expanded universes, Vogt-Roberts (another indie-turned-mainstream filmmaker like Edwards) is tasked with making the angry ape’s cinematic resurgence worth the wait for his eventual crossover with Godzilla. As a movie about Kong punching other monsters, it’s kind of cool, I guess, but it’s actually hard to invest yourself in all that as you watch the film waste its entire budget and cast from beginning to end.

In 1973, a group of scientists recruit a small band of US military troops stationed in Vietnam to assist them in the exploration of an uncharted island dubbed Skull Island. They also hire an expert(?) tracker, played by Tom Hiddleston, and an anti-war photographer, played by Brie Larson, because a movie about an ass-kicking gorilla totally needs two beautiful faces to keep viewers invested, right? Anyway...humans being humans, their liberal use of technology upon their arrival awakens Kong and other vicious beasts from their slumber. Things go south of course, and the team is stranded on the island. There are a few subplots involving supporting characters, played by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly, but I, much like the film itself, do not care enough about them to discuss their function (or lack thereof).

As a whole, cinema has not reached its zenith, but it has continued to find depressing new lows, particularly in the blockbuster department. The current target of hate in this regard is “Suicide Squad,” but I am here to tell you that “Kong: Skull Island” makes it look halfway decent at best. (Yes, you read that right.) Whereas the former completely squandered its attempt at some kind of characterization, the characters here are flatter than the pancaked corpses that Kong leaves in his wake. I suppose we should be so lucky that we have a cast of this caliber to watch; each actor does bring some amount of personality, but they’re ultimately unable to hurdle the lackluster dialogue that sours the effort. If anything, the first line, delivered by Goodman as his character rolls up in a car amidst an anti-war protest in DC, is a pretty good zinger. “Mark my words, there will never be a crazier time in Washington,” he says begrudgingly, though you can almost see Goodman winking at us here.

I know what you’re thinking; it’s all about the monsters, so who cares if the humans suck? I wish I could tell you that Kong and the island’s deadly residents are enough to distract you from the foolish humans, but they are not. They are, however, beautifully rendered, thanks to some admittedly stellar CGI and imaginative creature design. (Kong’s look echoes his first appearance in 1933, which should make older viewers smile.) What’s missing from the towering terrors is a sense of majesty. It’s worth noting that I saw this film on a huge screen, and even though the creatures look mighty imposing, they do not feel as such. We may as well be watching an extreme close-up of a child’s action figures throwing it down.

Watching Kong slam dunk a boulder into a so-called Skullcrawler’s face might have been more enjoyable if Vogt-Roberts had any grasp on pacing and tone. If you thought it was impossible for a film to be both rushed and overlong, think again. The number of characters to keep track of is agonizing enough, but it’s even more frustrating when every conversation, emotional beat, and action sequence lasts no more than five minutes. This is especially a shame when you consider some of the shots Vogt-Roberts composes with invaluable cinematographer Larry Fong. Some of them are oversaturated to a delightfully ludicrous degree, but none of them are granted the time for the audience to fully absorb them. To put it simply, “Kong: Skull Island” is “Mad Max: Fury Road” as directed by Michael Bay; a movie lover’s nightmare fueled by nothing more than recycled images and ideas. At least it made me want to watch “Godzilla” again.

(3/10)