“That’s Kong. He’s king around here.”
At the dawn of film’s inception, I doubt creature features were set in the cards. Yet, there’s no better medium for them. The spectacle, the ferocity, the madness, the dazzling wizardry of special effects, the bellowing roars that shake the very seat where your bottom presides, if temporarily — there’s no home more benevolent to monsters than in the dark warmth of the cinema. And 1933’s masterful King Kong is among the finest —and certainly one of the most inspirational — to ever bestow the theater. Its legacy is insurmountable; its impact is undebatable. There’s no blockbuster uninfluenced by its defining greatness —and that, of course, includes Kong: Skull Island, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (The Kings of Summer) deliriously wild, energizing jolt of pure studio-funded adrenaline.
Infused with the wonder of early Spielberg, the palpable excitement of early Peter Jackson and the sheer lunacy of Sam Raimi, at any point in his career, Kong: Skull Island is a vibrant, blisteringly entertaining thrill ride, a delightfully inspired reboot that doesn’t exceed the impossibly-tall standards of the franchise’s peak but, nevertheless, pounds its chest with innovation. Skillfully handled, wickedly violent and positively popping with colors and style, this is a blockbuster that really roars.
It’s 1973. America isn’t necessarily the world’s most formidable ally. Toward the tail-end of the Vietnam War, with the country divided away from the interests of its citizens, Monarch agents Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) set their sights beyond — specifically, to the undiscovered Skull Island, “the land where God didn’t finish creation.” Convincing the government to send some of their recently deployed soldiers, including Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Silvko (Thomas Mann), Reles (Eugene Cordero), Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) and squadron leader Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), while also rounding up roguish tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), they’re all on the cusp of discovery, as they fight hurricanes and other inclement weather to explore lands unseen in their attempt to map out a world bigger than they once imagined. And, of course, Skull Island is a beauty, a terrain rich with ivy green forestry and exotic wildlife. So, of course, the military bombs the living shit out of it (don’t think too much about why; the movie ultimately doesn’t).
Upon dropping bomb after bomb, they disturb a beast best left unprovoked. Kong, an ungodly ape bigger than you can imagine, soon greets our visitors, and he doesn’t take kindly to their actions. Stomping down helicopter after helicopter in brutal annihilation, only a few are left alive. Separated from one another, Preston and Bill are out for blood, while James and Mason are out for answers. Along the way, they all discover Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a kooky, heavily-bearded lieutenant stranded on the island since WWII, when his plane crashed nearby. Through him, they discover Kong is not their greatest threat, but perhaps their only means of survival against the real dangers on the island — a bunch of nasty, no-good creatures they’ll soon have the misfortune of meeting.
Kong is king on the island, and what a mighty ruler he is. Practically the size of a mountain, and more short-tempered than the President, this Kong is fierce and ferocious, loud and genuinely intimidating. Vogt-Roberts is excellent at displaying a prominent sense of scale with his titular gigantic ape, never shorting us of Kong’s awe-striking awesomeness — both in the traditional and modern sense of the word — and never afraid to give him white-knuckled vengeance against those puny, careless humans who want to disrupt his already less-than-peaceful, larger-than-life existence. But Kong is, of course, a sympathetic beast, and Vogt-Roberts recognizes that —if not quite as well as the original or Jackson’s underappreciated 2005 remake. There’s believable sadness in Kong’s mighty eyes. His reality is, at once, tragic and misunderstood, physically-barbaric-yet-internally-sensitive. He’s not one for a quiet existence, but we do, indeed, feel for his big ass ape existence.
The human ensemble, however, is less developed. The performances all around are solid, with acting veterans Goodman, Jackson and Reilly given the most opportunities to have the most fun, while their beautiful, younger peers, notably Larson and Hiddleston, are left searching aimlessly for ways to develop their paper-thin characters. Whigham and Mitchell stand out as surprisingly effective comedic relief characters, much like the enjoyably well-used Reilly, while the rest of the actors, which also includes Tian Jung, are pretty much blank slates, either due to quick, merciless editing or because they weren’t fleshed out from the beginning, especially since that would take time away from Kong smashing up ugly monsters. As a result, Kong: Skull Island puts a little too much on its plate for its own good, sacrificing most of its intellectualism and proper character growth in service of the big, brash action. But when it’s as fun as it is in this pulpy action-thriller, it doesn’t matter.
In many ways, Kong: Skull Island feels like an even better version of Jurassic World. While 2014’s stronger monster revival Godzilla owed a lot to Spielberg’s signature “holding its cards close to its chest until the big T-rex reveal” style, Vogt-Roberts owes a lot to Jurassic Park‘s sense of awe and danger. Kong: Skull Island is a strikingly beautiful-looking movie, which is lensed spectacularly by D.P. Larry Fong (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), and there’s not a single sequence that doesn’t pop wonderfully. The rich images play as a wonderful contradiction to the film’s inherent ugliness, particularly as we watch humans get slaughtered horrifically in violence that’s genuinely more graphic and disturbing than most of what we just saw in Logan. How it got away with a PG-13-rating is something I’ll be asking myself a lot throughout the year, and perhaps even longer.
There are a variety of disturbing, disgusting deaths here, but Kong: Skull Island does a great job of showcasing why the island is such a genuine, tangible threat. The deaths are cartoony in ways that echo (and likely pay tribute) to the aforementioned works of Raimi and Jackson, but it’s a credit to Vogt-Roberts that they still leave such a brutal impact, all while still keeping things not only light-hearted throughout, but pretty consistently funny too. It’s a juggling act that’s not necessarily masterful, but pretty exceptional. While the jump from Sundance darling to big blockbuster filmmaker is usually mined with disaster, not unlike the exhibition at the center of this film, Vogt-Roberts’ latest is supremely well-crafted and vividly well-realized. Kong: Skull Island is not merely a much-needed win for Warner Bros., but a truly fun return to the studio monster movies of old, the ones that dazzled you with stunning visuals and state-of-the-art effects with skill and expertise. It’s nowhere near as revolutionary as the namesake, but who said an enjoyable popcorn flick needs to live up to pure excellence? When it comes to spring movie attractions, Kong: Skull Island is a big, hairy blast.