It’s 1973 and the world has no knowledge of the 1930s Kong. This is an origin story, likely designed to set up a confrontation between Kong and Godzilla in future films (with the monster-hunting organization Monarch linking the two stories). A Monarch investigator (John Goodman) believes newly discovered Skull Island, in the Pacific, offers hidden plant and animal treasures, so he sets off to explore, accompanied by a photographer (Brie Larson), a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), an overzealous military officer (Samuel L. Jackson) and a crew of other, barely fleshed-out characters.
Once on Skull Island, they realize, of course, that they have bitten off more than they can chew. That’s not true for the latest CGI Kong, however, as he enjoys violently munching just about everything, including men, helicopters and the odd assortment of other creatures designed by the film’s talented animators. Jackson meanwhile – acting like he just stepped off a snake-ridden plane – chews the scenery and vows with wild-eyed intensity to “kill this son of a bitch” immediately upon his arrival. (An appropriate subtitle would have been Fantastic Beasts and How to Butcher Them.)
Compensating for the silly heavy-handedness and freneticism are realistic CGI, sumptuous locations and John C. Reilly, as a hilarious, half-crazed castaway who has been stranded on the island since his World War II plane crashed in 1944. Yet even his character, as well conceived as it is, is denied a chance at honesty and tenderness when his best scene is relegated to the closing credits by a director (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) who apparently lacks the requisite vision and sensibility for such a monster (pun intended) project and instead delivers a brainless action spectacle (which, admittedly, some audiences will love for its energy). Vogt-Roberts is not helped by a script (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly) that, among its many other faults, is hopelessly derivative, fails to build enough dramatic tension and – spoiler alert – kills off one of the two most interesting characters mid-movie. The film does attempt intellectualism through its cultural references and anti-war message (not to mention its cinematographic and thematic homages to Platoon and Apocalypse Now), but it’s all lipstick on a monkey.
It wasn’t beauty killed this beast. It was stupidity.
I had the opportunity to screen the film in a new 4DX cinema at Regal Pointe Orlando. It’s the only one in the southeast and one of fewer than a dozen in the entire nation, though there are more than 300 in Asia and Latin America (and more planned for the United States soon). Though the theater looks fairly normal, each cluster of four seats is actually a ride vehicle capable of whipping you forward, backwards, left, right, up and down, while vibrating the hell out of your back and butt. The cinema even has wind, fog, bubbles, water (which can be turned on and off from your seat) and smells, which frankly stink.
These features might be fun for a 10-minute theme-park ride, but they don’t seem practical for a two-hour film. (Plus, a 4DX ticket costs $8 more than a regular one.) Instead of heightening the aesthetic experience, the effects detract from the film, partially because I saw the 2-D version (its native format) and the motion often didn’t match the action on the screen (though the 4DX spokesperson said each film was “coded” into the seats). It’s not the “absolute cinema experience” advertised. On the contrary, it’s frighteningly damaging to serious cinema.
The 4DX theater even includes a device called the tickler. William Castle would be proud. Ingmar Bergman would weep.