In the entire history of cinema, only a few select films are so influential, so ingrained in our popular culture, that they become a modern myth. 1933’s King Kong, directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, is one of those films. As the original effects-driven blockbuster and monster movie milestone, Kong has been re-imagined, parodied, and referenced countless times since first being unleashed more than eight decades ago. Each one of us has, at some point in our lives, encountered The Eighth Wonder of the World. Whether it’s a remake, like John Guillermin’s 1976 film, or Peter Jackson’s in 2005, or a reference made in The Simpsons, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Jurassic Park, the legend of the colossal ape endures.
With Kong: Skull Island, the eighth movie to feature the titular beast, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (of the Sundance breakout The Kings of Summer previously) delivers a fresh, new experience that honors the essential elements of the iconic character and provides big, monster movie matinee fun. Written by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (2014’s Godzilla), and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), the movie follows a team of scientists, soldiers, and adventurers on a journey to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific, as dangerous as it is beautiful.
The year is 1973 — a year that marks the end of the Vietnam War and the dawn of the Landsat program, with NASA launching a satellite in order to map the planet from space for the first time in history. As the Landsat 1 satellite tracks over a violent geothermal disturbance in the South Pacific, its sensors detect solid ground cloaked within the perpetual storm. To NASA, the skull-shaped island is just another landmass hidden around the world, but to Monarch operative Bill Randa (John Goodman), however, it’s the breakthrough he’s been looking for. As a member of the secret scientific organization first referenced in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (from 2014), Randa has been looking for the Island for 30 years in an attempt to prove the existence of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms).
With the help of the Nixon Administration, Randa mounts an expedition to the island. Accompanied by his staff, geologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and biologist San Lin (Jing Tian), the operative travels to Saigon to recruit Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS black ops officer and tracker, to navigate the unmapped, primordial terrain. Also joining the exploration team is wartime photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who will document any discoveries they uncover, and a military helicopter escort led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a US Army Lieutenant Colonel who’s a bit like Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab mixed with Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. On the page, these characters are your standard action-adventure archetypes, but with the help of the exceptional ensemble cast Vogt-Roberts has assembled, they make for an entertaining crew of monster hunters. The real star, obviously, is Kong, who gets his fair share of helicopter-swatting, soldier-stomping, creature-clubbing action here.
After flying through the never-ending lightning storm that surrounds the island, the team runs smack-dab into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting a fierce battle between man and nature. At 100-feet tall, this Kong towers over other iterations. While Peter Jackson’s ape was a 25-foot-tall silverback gorilla, this Kong, brought to life by creature designer Carlos Huante and ILM’s visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White, hearkens back to the anthropomorphic design from the 1933 film, with exaggerated proportions and an anatomically updated physique. Here, Kong is truly a colossus, reminding the human specks that set foot on his turf that they are at the bottom of the world’s most lethal food chain. He’s the alpha predator on an island teeming with far more vicious creatures, including the Skullcrawlers — ancient, serpent-like beasts with powerful arms and horrific skull-like faces — which killed Kong’s ancestors and made him last of his kind. There are some awesome creature designs in Kong: Skull Island, so much so that sometimes you wish you could take a detour from the plot and go on a guided tour of the island and observe all its wild and wonderful creations — from a safe distance, of course.
With Kong: Skull Island — and Edwards’ Godzilla before it — Warner Bros and Legendary Entertainment are laying the foundation for a vast, shared universe of monsters. This “MonsterVerse” will continue with 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong. And while Vogt-Roberts’ film may be light on dramatic depth, it still fully delivers on exactly what you want from a big-budget creature feature: an exhilarating mix of action, adventure, and spectacle, with epic monster fights that inspire a sense of childlike wonderment. Most importantly, it’s fun, striking the right amount of humor thanks in large part to John C. Reilly’s kooky castaway character, who I’ve been careful not to mention until now. Reilly’s character is a man out of his time, and also out of his mind, and it’s a delight to see him interact with the rest of the cast.
It’s hard to hate on a movie that wants nothing more than to take you on a ride, and that’s precisely what Kong: Skull Island does. With some truly jaw-dropping visuals from director of photography Larry Fong (of Watchmen, Lost, Super 8, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a colorful cast of thin but endearing characters, and some of the most bad-ass Kong action committed to the screen, Kong: Skull Island is a solidly entertaining entry in the ape’s ever-expanding lore. And be sure to stay after the credits for a little tease at what’s to come next from the “MonsterVerse.” My inner-child was grinning ear-to-ear.
Adam’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5