Kong: Skull Island (2016)
118 min., rated PG-13.
As off-base as it might seem, “Kong: Skull Island” isn’t exactly a sequel, prequel, or reboot, even with its top-biller being one of cinema's most iconic movie monsters. Apparently, though, it is the second installment in Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ franchise, which is their answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe called the “MonsterVerse” after 2014’s “Godzilla,” but it still delivers all on its own. Following in the footsteps of Marc Webber, Gareth Edwards, and Colin Trevorrow, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (2013’s “The Kings of Summer”) graduates from a small little indie to huge blockbuster with a hefty studio budget, and his enthusiasm floods the project. Intentionally evoking the dangers of 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” and 1993’s “Jurassic Park” with the tone of an old Saturday matinee serial, the film is a rousing thrill ride. If audiences came to see the chest-beating primate in his glory and doing battle with gnarly monsters, take what you can get in the character department because “Kong: Skull Island” is pure rip-roaring fun. Big monster-movie fans might even call it awesome.
With the Vietnam War nearing an end in 1973, crackpot Monarch government operative Bill Randa (John Goodman) and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) find a satellite image of an uncharted island in the South Pacific known as “Skull Island” that’s known for missing ships and planes like the Bermuda Triangle. For a geological expedition, they need a military escort and a skilled tracker, finding both in decommissioned British Black Ops Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Among the members of their group are tightly wound, decorated Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Sky Devil soldiers—Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Slivko (Thomas Mann), and Cole (Shea Whigham)—and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Once the choppers fly over Skull Island and Packard’s men start dropping bombs on the area, the team immediately dwindles from the fists of 100-foot-tall ape Kong and becomes scattered throughout the jungle. Kong doesn’t particularly like tourists, but as Conrad and Weaver come to realize for themselves and by the explanation of stranded WWII soldier Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), there are other MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) to fear on Skull Island.
“Kong: Skull Island” approaches its pacing like the best monster movies do. Though it opens with a one-two punch, set in 1944, the film gradually builds dread like a theme park ride. In a direct nod to “Jurassic Park,” Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard even warns his team, “Hold on to your butts.” And then, once the choppers get to Skull Island, all hell breaks loose in an intensely thrilling, goosebump-inducing sequence with the use of a Richard Nixon bobblehead a shrewd touch in the process. Gareth Edwards did a more chilling, teasing job of revealing his monster in the “Godzilla” reboot little by little, while director Jordon Vogt-Roberts shows his monster every chance he gets, and that’s fine, too. When Kong gets his first official reveal, it’s impossible not to sit up and take notice the way the big hairy ape is majestically framed as a silhouette against an orange sunset. Director Vogt-Roberts keeps things moving at a lean, brisk clip, never wasting time with his underwritten B-movie cutouts (i.e. the deepest one gets is soldier Chapman writing to his son back home). In fact, almost anyone is fair game when it comes to someone becoming monster food.
The script must have been light work for screenwriters Dan Gilroy (2014’s “Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (2014’s “Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (2016’s “Monster Trucks”). Don’t expect the characters to be fully fleshed out because everyone gets about one defining trait apiece and then must step out of the way for the monsters. And be prepared to not remember many of the one-liners because they’re mostly perfunctory if occasionally cheeky. “Kong: Skull Island” has an excellent cast, though, and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Maybe it’s typecasting since he owns the “Avengers” role of Loki, but there is always something a little unscrupulous about Tom Hiddleston. Even here, as mercenary Conrad, one keeps expecting the other shoe to drop, but Hiddleston is actually just playing the hero and he’s solid doing just that. Brie Larson is better, forthright with an easygoing charm and warmth as pacifist photographer Mason who might find a soft spot for the big ape and vice versa. There’s also Samuel L. Jackson, doing his eye-bugging Samuel L. Jackson “thing” and playing as bad as the other monsters on the island. Popping up nearly halfway through as a marooned soldier who’s been away from his wife and son in Chicago for 28 years, John C. Reilly is a standout, as his role deepens a bit more beyond comic-relief shtick.
Compared to Peter Jackson’s spectacular 2005 epic “King Kong”—which admittedly suffered from a wee bit of bloat—“Kong: Skull Island” is much more efficient, if sometimes to a fault, and over in a blink after only two hours. As spectacle designed to make audiences gasp and leave them giddy, the nutty, wildly entertaining set-pieces do exactly what they should, while boasting plenty of showmanship and technical prowess. Portrayed by Tony Kebbell through motion capture, Kong, himself, is astonishingly weighty and tactile as an effect, and who knew his favorite snack was live octopus? Among Skull Island’s fearsome fauna, there are giant tree spiders, log monsters, and skeletal lizards called “skull crawlers” in a yellow-tinted boneyard. Aiding Henry Jackman's driving martial music score, the film also pulls the viewer into the time period by dispersing ‘70s songs from the Vietnam era, including Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle.” Anyone hoping to see Kong climb the Empire State Building or experience another unlikely love story between an ape and a human woman might as well turn around and go back home. Taken as a lively, exciting adventure with rampaging monsters and everyone’s favorite ape—even if it’s just in-the-moment entertainment—“Kong: Skull Island” fits the bill perfectly. It’s not even summer yet.