Warner Bros. has not had the best luck when it comes to epic, interconnected world-building franchises. Their attempts at making DC Comics properties have failed, for the most part, and after Harry Potter dried up, Warner Bros. has been scrambling to find the next big connected universe. When they partnered with Legendary and released Godzilla in 2014, a well-received American version of the popular Toho Studios creation, there were rumblings that it could be the spring board for a Kaiju interconnected universe. Those rumblings have turned to quakes now that Kong: Skull Island has made landfall, and is poised to trample audiences and critics like a coastal city unprepared for giant monster goodness.
Kong: Skull Island is not a remake of any previous Kong film, and largely avoids all of the missteps that Peter Jackson fell into with 2005’s King Kong remake. This Kong is essentially an origin film, taking place in 1973 at the close of the Vietnam war. There is no big ape rampaging New York, or allegories of beauty and the beast, this is pure non-stop action and it is the most fun I’ve had in a theater in years.
Kong: Skull Island stars John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton; 24: Legacy) as two representatives of an organization called Monarch, who believe that the stories of giant monsters are more than just fables, and they have discovered an uncharted island in the South Pacific that could be the key to proving their theories are sound. Goodman’s Randa and Hawkins’ Brooks convince a U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to fund their final expedition on the backs of a geological expedition and even get the senator to approve a military escort.
Enter Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter flight, fresh off of fighting the war in ‘Nam and awaiting orders to go home. Packard is deeply angry about “losing” the war, and doesn’t want to leave the business in Southeast Asia unfinished. When they get the call for an escort mission, Packard and his crew, which includes stars Jason Mitchell, Toby Kebbel, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Eugene Cordero, agree, but they have no idea what kind of war they are about to step into.
Randa and Brooks also reach out to an ex-SAS tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist named Mason (Brie Larson), who they thought was a man, based off her name, to round out the expedition. The group pushes through the storm that surrounds Skull Island (with a wonderful Jurassic Park callback from Samuel L. Jackson) and finds a mysterious untouched land, but before they can begin their work, the protector of the island, a 40-foot gorilla named Kong, begins his defense and all hell breaks loose.
The performances are all very strong, with Jackson leading the charge as a bigger than life Packard, and Hiddleston proving that he can be an action hero as well as the god of mischief. Brie Larson isn’t given much to do, but thankfully, the filmmakers decided to not try to push a love story between beauty and beast, as in this setting, it just would not have worked. Lastly, John C. Reilly stars as Hank Marlow, a WWII fighter pilot who crash landed on the island in 1944 and has remained there, going slightly mad, ever since. Marlowe is the comic relief, and when Kong is using helicopters like maracas, or ripping the spines out of huge lizard-like monsters, it’s nice to laugh here and there.
Kong: Skull Island is relentless in its action. If 2014’s Godzilla had one unifying complaint, is was the lack of action. Here, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose biggest film prior to this was the wonderful 2013 indie hit Kings of Summer, knows how to pace the story with huge action pieces spaced apart just enough that the fun never really ends. His use of reflections in windshields, mirrored sunglasses, even eyeballs created a really cool way to watch the first interaction with Kong, and just elevated the entire frenetic scene to near art.
Sure, there is also some exposition here and there, and a few attempts at themes and motivations, but really, all the audience wants to see is a giant ape destroy stuff — including other giant creatures, of which there are many on this island — and Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, based off a story by John Gatins, reward the audience with enough epic spectacle and carnage to fill a lifetime of Saturday afternoon B-movies from yesteryear.
And that is probably the greatest compliment that I can give Kong: Skull Island. For almost two hours, I felt like an 8-year-old kid again, gleefully watching huge monsters cause havoc. I laughed, I jumped, my heart raced, and I spent a good portion of the film covered with goosebumps. And by the time the end-credits scene rolled (make sure you stay), I was in for whatever Warner Bros. has planned for this shared universe.
Kong: Skull Island is also a must-see on IMAX, if at all possible. Vogt-Roberts framed and blocked some very epic shots, and it looked absolutely incredible on the extra-large screen. There is also a 3D option, but I barely even noticed the extra dimension.
Kong: Skull Island is a fun, action-intensive romp that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s high-value monster mayhem the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. There is no hidden allegory or message; it’s just a giant ape doing what everyone wants to see a giant ape do, and in the end, who can ask for anything more. Kong has always been king, and he proudly displays his crown in this film. But maybe, just maybe, something might be coming to challenge his authoritative position. And unlike Batman v Superman, I can’t wait for that battle.
Kong: Skull Island is rated PG-13 and opens Friday, March 10 in theaters and IMAX.
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