'Kong: Skull Island' Review

3.5

Kong: Skull Island brings back one of the most classic movie monsters ever, sets up a brand new franchise for him, and shows him terrorizing humans before he winds up protecting them from even worse creatures. The most recent Godzilla followed this formula as well, which is no coincidence for a number of reasons that become clear.

But in this case, Kong: Skull Island makes a few improvements and welcome changes to it, and to the usual Kong tactics. Whether or not it really is the best King Kong movie in 84 years, it does bring Kong back to his B-movie roots while showing off some A-list destruction.

Like the 1976 King Kong, this version is set in the 70s instead of the Depression era, only this time it is in 1973 at the tail end of Vietnam. At that point, the monster tracking government agency known as MONARCH is on its last legs, until its leaders discover an unknown territory called Skull Island. To flush out and prove the existence of the monsters on and below the island, a mission is formed with supervision from ex British military tracker Conrad and American Colonel Packard and his unit, while 'anti-war photographer' Mason Weaver finds her way onboard as well. But none of them are told the true purpose of their trip until Kong himself brings their helicopters down, and it takes an long stranded American airman to show them that Kong is really their only defense against the true devils of the island, although not everyone is willing to listen.

Kong: Skull Island isn't the first 70s-based Kong film to double as a social commentary. While the 1976 version targeted the oil industry and its exploitation, the Vietnam era is the focus here, with an opening credits montage seeming to chart the whole rise of the military-industrial complex. However, the very first line spoken by John Goodman lands as a far bigger commentary on today's times than it was likely written to be.

Nonetheless, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' true inspiration may be based less on the real Vietnam era and more on Apocalypse Now. He certainly owes a few royalties to the famed "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence when the helicopters start dropping charges on the island, although even Francis Ford Coppola wasn't mad enough to conceive of soldiers battling giant apes. Then again, it is hardly a fair fight for the most part, although it is certainly stunning for those watching who aren't in Kong's path.

When future Rogue One director Gareth Edwards helmed Godzilla, he waited about an hour to show even one glimpse of the big guy himself, and gave him less screen time than the other mutants until the final battle. Of course, Peter Jackson waited even longer to unveil the 2005 King Kong, then puttered around for two more hours until he finally went down in New York. Fortunately, Vogt-Roberts goes a different direction by showing the first glimpse of Kong about a minute in, then only waits 20 or so minutes more before his real jaw dropping introduction.

This Kong is less based on the 1933, 1976 and 2005 editions than the most recent Godzilla, as a monster who turns out to be the lesser of two evils. But this Kong is shown to be a bit more solitary and alone as well, keeping to himself when not being attacked by monsters or man. What's more, this may be the first Kong that isn't mainly defined by falling in love with a blonde female sacrifice, although there are still moments of connection between him and Mason at key points.

For over 80 years, the most controversial elements of the Kong mythology have been the racial metaphors in his love/lust for blonde white women, and the often stereotypical black natives who usually worship him. Skull Island manages to sidestep both trends, as his late attachment to Mason softens and helps redeem him instead of dooming him, and the natives actually have a thriving and human sacrifice-free society behind their giant walls. Still, long time Kong devotees will probably debate whether this corrects the most behind-the-times traditions of Kong lore, or strips it of some of its deeper meanings and metaphors.

Either way, Vogt-Roberts does end up falling into the same trap Edwards did, in not showing enough of his title monster for long stretches. In fact, John C. Reilly's semi-demented lost airman threatens to take over the whole film from Kong in the middle section, along with the Captain Ahab like madness of Samuel L. Jackson's Packard.

At the least, if Vogt-Roberts had to lose track of his biggest star, he mostly has the right human stars to distract us. Reilly does in fact nearly walk away with the movie, getting most of the big comedic one-liners for a character that's halfway nuts, but still far more equipped to get through the island than most of the new humans. On the other extreme is Jackson at his most megalomaniacal, serving as one big metaphor for all those still convinced Vietnam was given away rather than lost.

Among those with saner minds, Tom Hiddleston is the highest billed, although there really isn't that much for him to work with. While he does fine with what he is given, it doesn't bring him any closer to breaking out of Loki's shadow, especially with Thor: Ragnarok on the horizon this fall. Luckily, Brie Larson gets to fare better as a 'Kong girl' who actually doesn't have to just scream in terror or get captured by natives.

While Reilly gets much of the comic relief, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann aren’t that far behind themselves. Also popping up are 24: Legacy’s Corey Hawkins and The Great Wall’s Jing Tian as MONARCH employees, Toby Kebbell in an ape movie where he’s actually not playing a motion capture ape, and Richard Jenkins in an early cameo.

All told, Kong: Skull Island largely finds a better use for an all-star cast of humans than Godzilla did. Of course, very few came to see the humans take up screen time, as they came for Kong and other monsters that take down humans before Kong gets them.

When it comes to Skull Island’s other residents, they include multiple creatures that pop out of the water, a giant spider that’s hardly like those from the 2005 version, and the particularly vicious “Skull Crawlers” that are Kong’s greatest nemesis. Naturally they get to feast on some humans before fighting Kong, in a sequence that’s big and creepy but almost undermined at one point by the comedic aftermath of one death.

Yet it is all about fisticuffs and mayhem once Kong gets his big final showdown, in a monstrous brawl that also resurrects a few old Kong traditions. Despite those familiar touches, Vogt-Roberts doesn’t use them in a way that is an exact rip off of the past, which is a somewhat low standard but one that not every reboot/remake uses these days.

Peter Jackson mostly followed the blueprints of the 1933 Kong, only he stretched it out to over three hours, while the 1976 remake went in a different but even more campy direction. To its credit, Kong: Skull Island reboots the legend and the character in a way that doesn’t just copy and paste from the old movies, as it is willing to change the old Kong formula and keep some time-honored elements without using them the exact same way. It even tries to add new messages about Vietnam, war and foolish invasions of lands where some people just don’t belong, in metaphors that range from meaningful to heavy handed.

This is a time where so many remakes, reboots and sequels just do the same thing their predecessors did and little more, and usually in a far worse fashion. Perhaps that low standard makes Kong: Skull Island stand out more than it probably should, but it does show that characters and their legends can be rebooted without redoing every single thing they did years and decades ago to the letter.

Despite all this, this movie still follows the growing trend of blockbusters designed to set up their own cinematic universe and sequels. But unlike many similar movies, Kong: Skull Island largely stands on its own, and doesn’t need to screech to a halt every several minutes just to set up sequels and connections to other films.

In fact, it actually saves the biggest set up for the last possible moment, in a post-credits scene with some very familiar sights. Although the showdown and sequel set up by this scene is one that was already done in the 1960s, it is sure to play out far differently a few years from now.

Kong: Skull Island is a spectacle that doesn’t always work, and perhaps doesn’t match the bar set by Kong’s initial attack. But when it does work, it is a feast for the eyes and for fans of monster fights, King Kong and jungle islands named after skulls. With the added bonus of scene-stealing from the likes of Reilly, and of a rebooted Kong that blends the old and the new without merely copying the old, Vogt-Roberts restores Kong to his proper throne and wets the appetite for his future efforts to defend it.

Although it is all too clear that humans don’t belong in Skull Island, the general public can take a far less dangerous visit there starting on March 10.