Opinion writer

Kong facing down American helicopters in “Kong: Skull Island.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

This movie discusses the plot of “Kong: Skull Island” in detail.

Apparently, what America really needed to achieve peace with honor in Vietnam was Tom Hiddleston, wearing a gas mask, fighting pterodactyls with a katana.

This, and I am not being hyperbolic, is the theory of the conflict advanced by “Kong: Skull Island,” one of the sillier responses to the tragedy of U.S. entanglement in that country likely to be released this, or any year. Coming after movies like “Arrival” and “Logan” served as forceful arguments that genre fiction can sometimes surpass realism when it comes to discussing serious issues, “Kong: Skull Island” is a cautionary reminder that this approach takes work, and that when big ideas go up against what the Internet is likely to think is awesome, big ideas often come out on the losing end.

I should note before I go any further, that “Kong: Skull Island” is not a metaphor for the American war in Vietnam where Kong is Ho Chi Minh, the Americans are the Americans and the skullcrawlers are Chinese communism (although all of those analogies basically hold). It is literally about the American war in Vietnam.

The movie was shot partially in Vietnam’s Halong Bay. The action kicks off when scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) take advantage of the waning days of the conflict to talk a senator into giving them a military escort to Skull Island, a previously uncharted region. The team assigned to help them is led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is furious that he is being asked to leave with the job undone, and jumps at the chance to fly one more mission, even if it means delaying the homecoming of the men serving under him, particularly Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell), who writes faithful letters home to his son. They are joined by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), an intrepid “antiwar” photographer, as she puts it, who is looking for her next assignment, and James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former British Special Forces operative. Nixon bobbleheads jiggle wildly in helicopters, and the characters talk endlessly about how “You don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs unless you’re picking a fight.”

There’s a lot of theoretical promise in this reframing, not least because the movie manages to use Kong as something other than an avatar of bestial blackness mesmerized by a white woman (more on that in a moment), but “Kong: Skull Island” lives up to it only unevenly.

Kong is the protector both of the island’s ecology, which has been shaken and burned by the seismic charges Randa and his team set off, and of the humans who live there. The humans themselves are underdeveloped as characters: they don’t talk much, they practice ritual scarification and according to Hank (John C. Reilly), a World War II pilot who was shot down on the island in 1944 and has lived there ever since, in their society, there is “no crime, no personal property, they’re past all that.” That’s a shame, since if they were actual characters, “Kong: Skull Island” would be doing something even more radical than the sympathetic portrayal of KGB agents on “The Americans” and giving us a blockbuster where the hero is the anti-colonial protector of a socialist society.

“Kong: Skull Island” is more consistent and well-developed in its pursuit of the idea that the obsessive American quest for victory in Vietnam can only lead to disaster. Packard’s decision that he will kill Kong as a way of proving American valor and beating the Vietnamese by proxy ultimately leads him into serious strategic miscalculations and moral errors. In a nice moment that undercuts action hero tropes, Cole (Shea Whigham) tries to sacrifice himself to save his fellow soldiers: His efforts end up rather dramatically for naught. And Randa, who was willing to bomb another country and another people to prove his intellectual theories, meets an appropriately grisly end.

But good Lord is “Kong: Skull Island” invested in trying to be cool! and fun! and hip! in ways that make it feel like two movies kludged together, and that show serious signs of anxious flop-sweat.

Hank’s character has interesting elements, but Reilly often feels like he was added to the movie to give it a touch of “Guardians of the Galaxy”-style levity (you could swap his line readings with those Dave Bautista gives as Drax the Destroyer and both movies would work fine) that sits uneasily with the movie’s generally sober tone. And it deflates the movie’s message to have Hank serve as interpreter for the people he’s lived with, rather than having them speak for themselves.

The movie is desperately invested in images that feel like they were sourced from fan-art forums, from Conrad’s aforementioned gas-mask-and-katana getup, to the sight of a machine gun mounted on top of a triceratops skull. At a certain point, you can only lecture so effectively about how corrupting and futile war is when you’re making violence look this awesome.

And, like “Logan,” “Kong: Skull Island” can only break from its monster-movie roots so far. One of the ways it does this is by insisting on a communion between Mason and Kong. This does not result in the expected “Beauty killed the Beast” ending, a trope that might have played differently in an era when “Get Out,” another movie about a black man endangered by a white woman, is burning up the box office. But it still means that Mason is defined less by the sorts of battlefield photographs that Packard blames for curdling American support for the war, and more by the meaningful gazes she and Kong keep exchanging throughout the movie.

This is a movie divided against itself, down to the intentions it has for its characters. The result is dispiriting. In order to make a hard look at one of the ugliest episodes in our history palatable, we have to wrap it up in giant apes and flashing swords and dinosaurs.