When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out in 2014, the two biggest complaints lodged against the film were that a) it didn’t have enough monster action and b) the human characters barely registered onscreen. Three years later, a new movie based around the world’s other most famous giant monster has arrived to correct one of those issues outright while giving the other one at least a passing glance. The film is Kong: Skull Island, and while it still runs into some problems on the human level, no one could accuse this old-fashioned pulp adventure story of skimping when it comes to awe-inspiring monsters in battle, starting with the jumbo-sized gorilla himself.
Not connected with any previous Kong iterations but possibly set in the same universe as his scaly radiation-spawned rival, Kong: Skull Island opens during World War II as we see two pilots — one American and one Japanese — crash land on a foreboding, remote island and continue their fight on the ground until a bigger menace arrives to put things in perspective. The film then skips to 1973 (cue wall to wall classic rock soundtrack) and another conflict: the Vietnam War is coming to a close, and a man named William Randa (John Goodman) sees this as a perfect time to get the government to fund his expedition to that same mysterious island, where he thinks his theories about certain forms of life on the planet can be proven.
Randa recruits a now out-of-work military helicopter squadron for the mission, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), while also bringing along a team of scientists, a wartime photojournalist named Weaver (Brie Larson) and a former soldier turned tracker-for-hire named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). No sooner do they get to the island — flying perilously through a wall of electrical storms to get there — than they encounter the title character, who stands hundreds of feet tall and, in an outlandish yet massively thrilling action sequence, swats the attacking helicopters out of the air like so many flies.
The surviving team members find themselves on the ground and in disarray. They hence must make their way across the island to reach a pre-scheduled rendezvous point for pick-up — while discovering that Kong isn’t the only danger they face.
Kong: Skull Island is directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose previous film, the indie favorite The Kings of Summer, probably cost about as much as it took to feed the cast and crew on this production for one afternoon. In other words, Hollywood continues its strange habit of handing $190 million tentpoles to filmmakers with absolutely no experience handling a behemoth of that size, but in this case the gamble pays off: Vogt-Roberts has a good eye for large-scale composition, understands scope, and manages to find an almost swashbuckling tone for his monster romp that harkens back to old school jungle adventures while also maintaining the Apocalypse Now feel of the movie’s era and setting.
Despite the backdrop of the Vietnam conflict and the inevitable moral lessons regarding humanity’s relationship to nature (personified by Larson’s photographer, who begins to feel for the big ape while refreshingly avoiding most of the “beauty and the beast” trappings of previous Kong movies), Vogt-Roberts keeps a playful tone throughout the movie that’s best exemplified by John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, who’s been stranded on the island for a while and cheerfully informs his would-be rescuers that they’re not going to make it off Skull Island alive. Reilly easily steals the picture from his colleagues, giving Marlow a lot of heart while gleefully delivering most of the best lines.
Even if Reilly comes off the best, his fellow principals all manage to make the script work in their favor as well, even if some of them use their sheer talent to make characters that might have been thin on the page come to life. Hiddleston invests his Conrad with a nice mercenary attitude and formidable physical prowess, while the character also gets a satisfying and believable emotional arc.
Goodman handles a lot of the early exposition, but there’s no one you want doing that more than him, while Jackson takes the kind of role he’s played so many times before and still finds a way to make it entertaining, even if his Packard goes a bit more over the top than the others. Supporting players like Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, and Jing Tian (who has already seen her share of monsters with a more substantial role in The Great Wall) all make it through without embarrassment, although a subplot involving one secondary character proves completely superfluous to the story.
The main character, however, is right there in the title, and he doesn’t disappoint. Clearly dwarfing all previous iterations of the beast, this Kong wanders his domain like a lonely king, content to wrest giant octopus-like creatures out of the island’s lakes and wrestle with them a bit before chowing down. He ultimately may not be as poignant as the version we saw in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, but we come to empathize with him as we learn about his lineage and that he protects the island’s primitive human inhabitants from some truly nightmarish underground dwellers that Reilly dubs “Skullcrawlers.”
The Skullcrawlers are at the center of some of the movie’s most intense action pieces, and the plentiful monster action and colossal battle scenes are what really drive Kong: Skull Island. The fact that the human characters, the story and the overall pacing and tone are all handled well is a pleasant bonus. Above all, the movie is fun — it’s hard to say whether it will linger in your memory very long but it will keep you glued to your seat (and yes, make sure you stay until the very end because there’s some post-credits business to take care of). Sorry, Godzilla, but Kong has the edge for now.
Kong: Skull Island opens in theaters March 10. This review was first published on March 3.