For a movie in which a major character's death is discovered when a giant lizard-monster vomits out his skull, Kong: Skull Island is a surprisingly breezy affair. It's not so much that the characters or situations are particularly lighthearted. The film offers up plenty of wartime atmosphere and grim backstory, and the constant carnage of soldiers and explorers getting tossed and crushed and eaten by pseudo-prehistoric beasts is certainly anxiety-inducing -- at least for the plastic people onscreen. But despite all that, it remains charming, insistent piffle -- a monster movie that's unafraid to be cruel while also mining the genre's inherent silliness.
The story plunges us into the waning days of the Vietnam era, as American explorer-businessman Bill Randa (John Goodman) attempts to convince his government superiors to let him take a voyage to a remote, skull-shaped island. His team includes bureaucrats, scientists, a helicopter attack brigade led by a hard-ass sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson), a roughneck British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).
As soon as the helicopters approach the island, however, they're being swatted out of the sky and chewed up by cinema's favorite giant primate. Crashing on different parts of the island, what remains of the team struggles to survive, reconnect and escape. People die in creatively graphic ways, and the spectacle of brawling beasts in beautiful, forbidding settings is at times as captivating as it probably was in 1933, when audiences first gaped at Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper's original King Kong. But there's something curiously soulless about the whole enterprise, even as the filmmakers continually strive for greater resonance or meaning.