Kong: Skull Island (2017) Warner Bros./Action-Adventure-Fantasy RT: 118 minutes Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, brief strong language) Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Screenplay: Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein Music: Henry Jackman Cinematography: Larry Fong Release date: March 10, 2017 (US) Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Mark Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel.
Finally, a popcorn movie done right! Kong: Skull Island is pure monster movie fun. Much like Gareth Edwards did justice to Godzilla in 2014, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) does the same for King Kong, the giant ape that twice scaled the Empire State Building (in the 1933 and 2005 versions). The two monsters actually inhabit the same shared universe; Warner Bros. plans to build a Marvel-like franchise leading up to a face-off between Kong and Godzilla (in 2020). If it’s as good as Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, it’ll be worth the three-year wait.
If you’re like me, then you’re still smarting over Peter Jackson’s long-ass remake from 2005. It was visually great but so boring. It seems like they were on that damn island forever. It did NOT have to be three hours long. Roberts pretty much gets right down to business in Kong: Skull Island. We see the titular ape less than 30 minutes into the movie. What an entrance he makes! But first, there’s the small matter of introducing the characters and plot (such as it is). Once that’s out of the way, it’s pretty much non-stop action.
It’s 1973 and America has just pulled out of Vietnam. Why do I mention this? I’ll get to that shortly. The main plot of the movie deals with an expedition to a mysterious place called Skull Island. The guy in charge, Bill Randa (Goodman, The Big Lebowski), gives all sorts of reasons why the government should give the go-ahead but we know he has a secret agenda. He’s joined on his mission by James Conrad (Hiddleston, Loki from the Marvel Universe), a former British SAS agent-turned-guide; pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson, Room) looking to expose dirty governmental dealings; seismologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins, 24: Legacy) and a team of soldiers led by Colonel Packard (Jackson, Pulp Fiction).
They arrive at the island (surrounded by a permanent stormy shroud) by helicopter and are greeted by its biggest inhabitant, obviously annoyed by the sudden appearance of uninvited guests. Kong proceeds to attack the squadron, knocking the copters out of the air and scattering survivors all over the island. Broken into smaller groups, they have three days to reach the pick-up point. Provided they survive, of course. Skull Island is home to all manner of giant, prehistoric creatures that attack the frightened intruders without warning. At some point, Conrad’s team encounters Hank Marlow (Reilly, Boogie Nights), a WWII vet that’s been stranded on the island for 28 years and knows what dangers lurk there like ugly, carnivorous creatures he calls “Skullcrawlers”. They look like wingless pterodactyls.
Kong: Skull Island breaks down like this. It’s about a giant ape fighting other giant creatures while the humans try to avoid being crushed or even. Not everybody will make it off the island. It’s as simple as that. It’s also the second time in less than a month that I enjoyed a big studio-made CGI action spectacle (the other being last month’s The Great Wall). Back to something I said earlier. Some will interpret Kong: Skull Island as a political allegory about our involvement in the Vietnam War and they have a fairly strong argument. It does contain allusions to Vietnam-themed movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. It also references Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Even some of the vintage songs on the soundtrack- e.g. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane- have been used in Vietnam-set movies. I wasn’t thinking such deep thoughts as I watched Kong: Skull Island. I was too busy having a good time watching huge monsters fight each other.
Ordinarily I don’t like CGI effects; I think they look incredibly fake. The CGI in Kong: Skull Island is very good. You almost believe Kong is real. He and the other monsters look tangible as opposed to digitalized, like characters from a video game. It’s action-packed with a lot of cool scenes like one of the soldiers bracing an M-60 machine gun against a giant Triceratops skull. The cast is a solid one. They all look like they’re having a ball. They get it. Kong: Skull Island is NOT the type of movie that requires Method acting or digging deep into your soul to find the right emotion. All they’re required to do is run away from Kong and look scared doing it. Jackson hams it up nicely as the Ahab character; his obsession with destroying Kong causes him to become unhinged. Reilly’s character is also a little bonkers but that comes with being stuck on Skull Island for nearly three decades. Although it’s unintentional, Shea Whigham (of the Fast & Furious franchise) pays tribute to the late Bill Paxton by channeling his crazed Marine from Aliens. I kept waiting for him to say “Game over, man!”
Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to a time when special effects-laden studio movies could be fun. True, there’s a message mixed in about how humankind has treated nature (badly) and monsters are nature’s way of restoring balance (or some such nonsense). It’s really the movie’s only misstep. Otherwise, it’s a solid Saturday afternoon monster matinee flick. Other studios and filmmakers take note- in fact, take a lot of them- this is how it’s done. It’s silly but in the best way possible. I haven’t enjoyed a giant ape movie this much since King Kong Lives (1986). Be sure to stay through the end credits for a great extra scene that sets up future entries in a potentially cool series.