‘Kong: Skull Island’ Review: The Effects Are King in This Action-Heavy Reboot

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Warner Bros.

Kong: Skull Island may be set in the early 1970s, but it’s clearly engineered for modern sensibilities. Even though the film’s trailer drew comparisons to Apocalypse Now, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seems less inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film than its iconic poster of a setting sun, an image Skull Island returns to over and over. If Skull Island bears superficial similarities to Coppola’s classic, it’s little more than A-picture gloss on a big-budget B-movie. Naming one of your characters after Joseph Conrad doesn’t make your film Heart of Darkness; the only thing at this movie’s heart is the (admittedly accurate) belief that when a giant ape punches a giant lizard in the face with a boat motor it looks totally freaking awesome.

The title refers to the most famous ape in movie history and his beloved home, an untamed atoll filled with monsters of all shapes and sizes. Most Kong stories begin with a journey to Skull Island before returning to civilization for a culture clash of mammoth proportions. Once Kong: Skull Island arrives at its central location it never leaves. That gives the film fewer opportunities to stop and ponder the philosophical side of the eternal struggle between man and nature, and many, many more opportunities to literalize that eternal struggle by pitting its human characters against apes and octopi and giant spiders and these indescribable horrors known as “skull-walkers.”

Oh, those human characters. They are such dummies. They venture to Skull Island in 1973 at the behest of Bill Randa (John Goodman), a member of the shadowy Monarch organization who convinces a U.S. Senator (Richard Jenkins) to let him lead an expedition to this uncharted land in the name of ... well, something. The Senator acquiesces and even agrees to give Randa a military escort, led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Packard. This battle-hardened war hawk is more than happy to drop “seismic charges” all over Skull Island in the name of “science,” which is just as bad an idea as it sounds.

On the plus side, the bombing raid awakens Kong, who promptly beats the hell out of the people blowing up his backyard in an electrifying sequence. Vogt-Roberts’ Kong is way bigger than previous ones, and a lot meaner, too; Skull Island revels in the sensational chaos he unleashes on Packard’s crew — and most of them are such dopes that it’s hard not to cheer him on.

The parade of potential victims includes Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), a Hollow Earther who discovers his outlandish geology theories aren’t as far-fetched as he thought, and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF officer who specializes in jungle tracking and maintaining beautiful caramel highlights in his hair even during the Vietnam War. The team also includes a war photographer, played by Brie Larson, because what secret mission to a highly-classified location that must never be revealed to the public doesn’t need a member of the media around to potentially leak everything they find?

The cast is way too large for a movie of Skull Island’s scope and length; at one point, the film follows three different groups of survivors as they all try to escape the island simultaneously. The only non-monkey highlight is John C. Reilly, who’s both hilarious and surprisingly soulful as a man who’s been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The film is at its best at its simplest; Kong kicking monster butt, or the human heroes fighting for their lives in a boneyard filled with poisonous, flammable gas.

Warner Bros

In this way, Kong: Skull Island faithfully follows in the enormous footsteps of 2014’s Godzilla, in which the only three-dimensional character was the fire-breathing dinosaur at its center. (Skull Island is intended as a prequel to Godzilla, and a lead-in to an eventual Godzilla vs. Kong picture.) The last time Kong headlined a major Hollywood production was in 2005, when Peter Jackson remade the original King Kong on an epic scale. That movie was flawed, but it was also an ambitious attempt to wring emotion from a motion-captured special effect. There was sentiment amidst its spectacle.

Kong: Skull Island has a different set of priorities. Its biological concerns bypass the tear ducts to focus entirely on the adrenal glands. Where almost every past Kong tried to humanize its simian protagonist, Skull Island is only interested in him as a vehicle for destruction and excitement; Vogt-Roberts, who previously made the small Sundance hit The Kings of Summer, delivers a solid supply of cheap thrills, most effectively in the centerpiece skirmish between Kong and Packard’s fleet of helicopters.

If Jackson’s Kong aspired to poetry, Kong: Skull Island wants to be the downmarket dime-novel version of the same story. And as dime-novel versions of this story go, it’s not terrible. This is a creature feature, plain and simple — and, at least on a visceral level, a satisfying one.

Additional Thoughts:

-In another Kong, Brie Larson’s character would have served as the ape’s crush, and the conduit to the warm heart beneath his ruggedly furry exterior. Apart from a few sideways glances, Kong doesn’t show much interest in Skull Island’s heroine. Neither, for that matter, does the movie; Larson mostly stands around admiring Hiddleston’s luxurious hair and taking pictures of stuff. It’s another classic example of an Oscar winner immediately cashing in on their award with a lucrative gig that’s way beneath their talents.

-Though there are way too many members of Sam Jackson’s unit, at least it’s vaguely clear who those guys are and what they’re doing. The same cannot be said for the woman played by Jing Tian. She shows up, without introduction or explanation, in the middle of a key early scene, and then remains a main character through the rest of the film. It’s truly baffling.

-Yes, there is a post-credits sequence. It will likely please hardcore fans of this nascent cinematic universe, but I’m not sure it entirely makes sense when held alongside the scene that immediately precedes it. When you see it, you tell me if I’m wrong.

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