Deep in the jungles of blockbuster cinema is a beast, or hero if you will, but he doesn’t wear a cape or much of anything. No, this hero simply stands 100 feet tall to fight off other monsters and delivers the kind of joy you want in a rip-roaring adventure that doesn’t forget to have fun. Kong: Skull Island features the return of King Kong, 1933’s 8th Wonder of the World and a classic movie icon who has stood the test of time. This latest adventure finds Kong on his home turf, with a mix of wild new beasts, an ensemble team of talented actors in thankless roles, and plenty of visual effects to provide incredibly action thrills. I dug this movie a lot.
Structurally, this movie takes on a fun concept to distance itself from its predecessors. Rather than developing another story of overanxious humans bringing a gargantuan animal to New York, this film holds focus on that animal’s home. The requisite roles are filled and we quickly push through the logic of why this journey needs to happen, but the movie relishes in its monster mayhem. At the center of all of it is Kong. Be it practical or digital in design, the beast always holds one’s attention and this time he has good reason to be so angry – the less important humans are upsetting the balance.
The setting plays a big role here and not just in regards to an uncharted island full of “God’s unfinished creations.” Following a short, but exciting prologue that tells us all we need to know about the tone of the film, Skull Island sets itself in 1973. Not the real 1973, but a comic book version that can sum up varying attitudes about the conclusion of the Vietnam War fairly quickly, before convincing a diverse group of characters to explore a potentially dangerous island. Using an intense, fiery sun as a repeated visual motif, cinematographer Larry Fong continues holding strong as the most interesting DP of March blockbusters (see 300 or Batman v Superman). It all adds to what seems like an over-the-top tribute to Apocalypse Now through the eye of a video game junkie. That it works so successfully is what truly impresses.
Getting to Kong means setting up this cast, so the film has assembled quite a number of featured players. Tom Hiddleston plays a former SAS Captain, leading the expedition. Samuel L. Jackson is an Army Lieutenant Colonel who develops an Ahab-like obsession with Kong. Brie Larson is an anti-war photojournalist. John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Jian Tian and John Ortiz are all scientists. And Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann are soldiers under Jackson’s command. It’s a big cast and helps to explain why this latest Kong epic has a $190 million budget. The rest clearly went to bringing Kong (mo-cap performance by Terry Notary) and this island to life, thanks to spectacular work by Industrial Light & Magic.
Rather than hold off, Skull Island is happy to feature Kong quite often and with a design that calls to mind the 1933 original, with an added sense of scale (he’ll need it for battling Godzilla in 2020). It plays well for an opening bout against a squad of helicopters and things don’t get easier as Kong deals with other oversized monsters and the fiery glare of Jackson’s unhinged Colonel. This iteration of Kong is not the same as Peter Jackson’s (brilliant) 2005 romantic epic. Instead, we have a war movie of towering proportions with shaky alliances. Mixing in quirky characters and straight-laced (bland) human folk allows for plenty of windows into the paradise/hell that is Skull Island, but the film is really just dropping us into the life of this island’s protector.
By the way, the true highlight of this cast is John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, the WWII pilot who found himself marooned on this island for 28 years, making friends with the natives in the process. That’s important, because we not only get yet another great performance from Reilly (let this man host the Oscars), but it helps reassure us that Skull Island is an adventure meant to be enjoyed. Sure, Goodman steps in early on to let us in on the fun, but it’s the unhinged work from Reilly, who also adds a good amount of heart to this film. It only helps that the film never loses sight of the tone it’s going for.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has come off of his 2013 debut, The Kings of Summer, with a sophomore effort that asserts just how confidently he could match studio demands with his own sensibilities. While Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla called upon many Spielberg-ian qualities in terms of patience, reveal and delivery, Vogt-Roberts is more driven by James Cameron’s style. This is the Aliens of King Kong movies, complete with dialogue that serves the purpose of efficiency (and overwrought delivery) and the kind of pacing that rarely lets up. There is a sense of discovery and wonder here, which is often matched with terror and explosions.
Vogt-Roberts may be the latest example of an indie (white, male) filmmaker catapulted to the big leagues based off one little indie (think Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World), but he’s also another example of younger filmmakers that grew up during the blockbuster age and put their imaginations to the test. One can pick up on the various influences that range from film homages to gaming in-jokes, but having it all pay off in service to a fun flick is what anyone would want.
It makes for great cinema, as this film is an unabashed adventure of massive proportions. The actors do what they can and some stand out (again, Reilly), but there is so much joy found beyond the human element. Skull Island is a spectacle film handled really well, as an ever-increasing body count means encounters with so much deadly imagination and interesting, colorful set pieces. Whether it’s an octopus battle, lizard creatures or Hiddleston on a one-man killing streak ripped straight out of an anime, Skull Island is not short on wild, cinematic indulgence. The trick is making it all fit into a blockbuster package and making it feel meaningful. For this Kong fan, the deed was done. King Kong welcomed me to his jungle and it had everything I’d want.