Studio: Legendary/Warner Bros.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, John Gatins
Producer: John Jashni, Alex Garcia, Thomas Tull, Mary Parent
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
An expedition to chart a mysterious island in the South Pacific uncovers evidence of the existence of giant monsters.
“Kong: Skull Island” has three words in its title for good reason. This blockbuster belongs to the island’s inhabitants as much as it does to Kong. Maybe more so. And that’s really saying something considering how much the movie makes sure to showcase Kong with every ounce of mammoth majesty the mighty king so rightfully deserves.
Minutes after Nixon announces the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Monarch main man Bill Randa (John Goodman) is in D.C. seeking funding for a survey mission to uncharted Skull Island. Senator Willis has had it with Randa’s mythical monster chases. But geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) sells the senator on the idea that if they don’t discover the hidden island’s scientific secrets first, the Russians might beat them to it.
Supporting the academic expedition is a military escort led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career soldier in dire need of a war now that he no longer has one. Randa and Brooks also recruit a military man of their own, British Special Forces turned hired gun James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to be their guide on the ground. Completing the crew is photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and biologist San Lin (Jing Tian).
With core cast introductions conducted, “Kong: Skull Island” is unshackled to get into the grittiness of full-blown monster mayhem. Fans unimpressed with “Godzilla 2014’s” (review here) piecemeal reveal of its star attraction don’t have as long to wait here. In addition to a pre-credits prologue of Kong filling the full screen within the first five minutes, the survey crew passes through a hurricane to hit their destination and the first thing they see is the oversized ape.
There’s no buildup of minor monsters before getting to the main meal. Kong immediately rolls out the welcome wagon of building-sized fists and starts swatting transport choppers straight out of the sky.
Everyone is suddenly stranded and their sole hope of survival requires reaching a beach to signal a search party. It’s a long trek through a jungle full of giant ants, insects, spiders, and worse. Luckily they find an unlikely guide in Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a WWII pilot stranded on Skull Island for 28 years. He tells them Kong is a protective savior who need not be feared. The real dangers lurk underground, and the arrival of outsiders has disturbed them.
The “Apocalypse Now” inspired poster for “Kong: Skull Island” is more than mere homage. With its jungle backdrop and Vietnam era setting, “Kong: Skull Island” is built to be a war movie in creature feature form.
Like any story of soldiers storming a hill to overthrow an enemy, “Kong: Skull Island” is about struggles for supremacy, asserting power, and finding purpose in the face of progress amid conflicting ideologies. It just happens to take place in a prehistoric paradise where colossal creatures tear each other to pieces.
“Kong: Skull Island” proves that the best way to make a B-movie, ironically, is on an A-movie level with a nine-figure bankroll and an all-star cast. A big budget with big talent is the only way to do justice to this story, style, and scope, and it works.
The film is basically a behemoth battle royale, exactly how fans want it. And we take all of its imaginative creature carnage seriously because the cast convinces us to.
When John Goodman deadpan delivers dialogue about clandestine cover-ups of atomic tests that were actually monster hit missions, he erases any urge to snicker through impassioned gravitas. And Kong’s human foil has to be played by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s characteristic combination of confidence, charisma, and craziness is essential for matching up against an adversary of Kong’s magnitude.
Running away with every scene he occupies is John C. Reilly as the stir-crazy WWII veteran. Marlow’s cracking mind makes him a complete crackup. Reilly’s well-timed humor is the hall pass providing permission to smile wide at certain onscreen insanity, reminding us that “Kong: Skull Island” is escapist entertainment first and foremost.
Cinematography makes the visual feast practically too succulent. Action seems storyboarded to account for a picturesque moment in virtually every frame. Fiery backgrounds. Perfectly positioned characters. The One Perfect Shot people could fill an entire Twitter feed for months from this film alone.
Digital details on Kong are extraordinary. Flies buzz around his face. Broken foliage and matted mud dirties his fur. Kong has never been bigger and Kong has never looked better.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts additionally treats the audience as ringside VIPs for every single showdown. Monster melees are dominantly set in daytime. The camera goes wide and stays in one place. “Kong: Skull Island” captures the sense of scale so you can see and feel each cracking blow in every confrontation. Artificial energy from quick cuts, tight close-ups, or whip pans isn’t even on the table. The full power of towering titans brutally beating each other speaks for itself.
One scene takes place in a smoky setting. But it is used to surround characters in suspense, not to obscure activity so you only get a teasing glimpse of what is going on.
“Kong: Skull Island” appears deliberately designed around engaging exclusively in excitement, possibly after the fact in the editing room. The movie certainly has a bigger roster than it needs, and some of those people play oddly underused roles.
Jing Tian is billed fifth even though she has less screen time, and a lesser part in the plot, than at least ten other characters. Tian appears so infrequently, there should be a prize for anyone who can name her character before her end credit does.
Other edits appear suspiciously snipped too. With a one-off hold of a hand and some grinning private conversations, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson seem set up for a romance that never really comes into bloom.
A smart guess suggests “Kong: Skull Island” had other ideas at some point. Until someone said, “let’s simply see Kong rip apart a giant octopus instead.” Kong fans can agree the movie is better served by such a delightful decision.
Activity is light on the human side, though soap opera subplots shouldn’t be a reason to book passage to Skull Island in the first place. Sticklers for seriousness also have to look the other way on contrivances (how convenient is it that a skullcrawler barfs a key item literally at Tom Hiddleston’s feet while another enemy interrupts at the decisive moment of a Mexican standoff?) if they are to get grounded in the fiction.
Plenty of other movies can cover dour drama dripping in realism, if that’s what anyone is actually after. For fun popcorn fantasy of giant monsters roaring, rampaging, and ripping limbs off each other, “Kong: Skull Island” is king.
Review Score: 85