After the disappointment of 2014’s “Godzilla,” my expectations were pretty low going into “Kong: Skull Island” despite the talented cast and effective marketing campaign, but boy does it feel good to be proven wrong. Combining blockbuster filmmaking with the B-movie monster genre, “Kong: Skull Island” is Hollywood commercialism at its finest – a visually stunning adventure film that boasts great special effects, exciting set pieces and lots of humor. Though Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake was a decent but bloated take on the classic King Kong story, “Kong: Skull Island” is better in almost every way. This is what a modern day King Kong movie should look like, even one that has a foot firmly planted in the past.
The year is 1973, and with the Vietnam War drawing to a close, a pair of scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) from Monarch – the mysterious organization that unearthed Godzilla in the 2014 reboot – convinces the U.S. government to fund an expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific under the guise of a geological mapping mission. Joining them on their journey is former British SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a military escort led by the tightly-wound Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who jumps at the chance to extend his deployment, even if the rest of his squadron (including Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann) don’t quite share his enthusiasm.
Upon arriving at the aptly named Skull Island, however, Monarch’s true intentions become clear when the exploration team encounters a ferocious, 100-foot ape (known by the natives as Kong) that swats their fleet of helicopters out of the sky like flies. Stranded on the island and separated into two groups, the survivors must journey across a dangerous and hostile environment filled with giant insects and other beasts in order to reach the rendezvous point, where a refueling boat will be waiting for them in three days. While Packard becomes obsessed with bringing down the gigantic ape for killing some of his men, the others just want to get off the island as soon as possible, and for good reason too, because Kong is the least of their worries.
Following in the footsteps of other directors like Gareth Edwards and Colin Trevorrow, who were handed the keys to a massive Hollywood franchise after only making one film, Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) justifies the studio’s gamble on him with an immensely enjoyable throwback that delivers everything you could want in a big monster movie. Unlike “Godzilla,” Kong has plenty of screen time; he’s involved in almost every major action beat, save for a thrilling sequence where the humans are attacked by a Skull Crawler, the creepy reptilian creatures that Kong protects the island against. The titular ape looks amazing as well. Vogt-Roberts doesn’t hesitate to get right up in Kong’s face to show off every leathery wrinkle and strand of hair, and his increased size (quadruple that of the 2005 version) makes him even more imposing than usual.
The story itself is as ridiculous as you’d expect for a film about giant monsters, but credit to Vogt-Roberts for assembling such an impressive cast. It’s a murderers’ row of talent, and while there are so many characters to juggle that no one is really developed beyond their various archetypes (Hiddleston and Larson are particularly underserved), everyone gets their moment to shine. There are a few standouts, including Jackson’s Captain Ahab-like antagonist and John C. Reilly’s comic relief, a U.S. fighter pilot who was shot down over the island during World War II, but for the most part, the movie is a truly collaborative ensemble piece with no shortage of likable characters. Though it’s far from perfect, “Kong: Skull Island” is pure fun from start to finish, proving once again that when it comes to cinematic monsters, Kong is still king.