The food metaphors write themselves. The blockbuster monster movie, of which Kong is one of many kings, is a scrumptious meal that’s a favorite: a reliable love, based on more than a little nostalgia. Kong: Skull Island is that same meal the next day, reheated and served. You know you had it yesterday, but either out of lack of choice or lingering desire, probably both, you’re gonna have it again. You’ll probably enjoy it; you’ll probably enjoy Kong: Skull Island too.
Skull Island is the latest of many Kong films, tie-ins, and rip-offs, but one of the few to focus entirely on the mysterious island. Unlike the classic 1933 film or the popular 1976 remake, the story never makes it past Skull Island. Gone are the references and pastiches to New York, the Empire State Building, or the natural world meets modern world thematic class. Here instead are references to war, Washington dysfunction, and lots of talk of fathers and their sons. Skull Island is frequently entertaining and rarely dull (it seems impossible to have a dull movie with a cast this deep-benched). It’s also a little overcrowded, more war film than monster film when it wants to be, and then inversely so when it wants to be. There are references aplenty, to Jurassic Park, Apocalypse Now (in addition to most every other classic Vietnam war film), and the film Skull Island will share a universe with, Godzilla.
The story here is simple enough, and thankfully doesn’t waste needless time in revealing its monster or its conceit. The film follows our heroes, and there are lots of them, as they descend on Skull Island with various motivations. There’s a preamble sequence that’s quietly thrilling, and then an opening credits sequences acting a montage of the years gone-by, followed by the mission: a group of scientists, accompanied by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), are to seek out Skull Island, in the hopes of mapping it. In order to do this, they will require an expert for the ground, a former-British SAS tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and experts for the air, a squadron of US Army Sky Devils helicopter pilots led by Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson). Also present is Mason Weaver, a smart and motivated war, or as she remarks “anti-war”, photographer played by Brie Larson. There are about thirty other great performers here. Surprising few is the actual king of Skull Island, however. That’s John C Reilly, as a former US fighter pilot stranded on the island decades ago. He brings his iconic charm and wit, but also a lot of heart to a film that could be drowned out by CGI effects.
I say “could be” purposefully. The pejorative generality is that movies contingent on computer effects are heartless. This is owed, I think, more to the computers part of the acronym than the effects. Practical effects are beloved, and rightfully so. There’s a richness to seeing a classic film with practical effects, and an excitement to seeing a modern film with them. Kong: Skull Island has few notable practical creature effects, and is instead a testament to Industrial Light and Magic and its collection of hundreds of talented technicians and animators. Kong has a full personality range here. It may mostly be expressed in roars and chest beatings, but Kong is stable as a character himself. Then again, King Kong has always been a testament to the life that can live in false effects. The original film painted the creature as a person. Peter Jackson’s undervalued 2005 remake was notable, perhaps above all else, for Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Kong. (The notable difference between Skull Island’s Kong and and Jackson’s Kong, and a way that the new film actually hews closer to the 1933 original, is that Kong is a bipedal creature here, whereas Jackson’s Kong moved more like an actual gorilla with all four limbs.) Here, Kong is portrayed by veteran motion capture and movement coach Terry Notary. Beforehand, I had assumed that actor Toby Kebbell would portray Kong (he also portrays one of the helicopter pilots in the film), having experience performing as an ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Instead, he was an advisor on the performance, as director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wanted Kong to feel less realistic and more like a classical giant monster.
It’s Vogt-Roberts’s (perhaps misguided) enthusiasm that radiates through the film. He and cinematographer Larry Fong (a regular collaborator with Zack Snyder) hew closely to the color palettes of films like Apocalypse Now, rather than the blues and greys that might often accompany a Kong film, and waste no chance to set Kong or the human heroes against a red sun or red flames. Kong is towering, at least a hundred stories tall, and no expense is wasted in seeing him fight the other creatures of Skull Island. But there is also a lot of attention paid to the human cast. Vogt-Roberts seems to love casting light behind Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston, and there’s no blaming him for that. It’s inevitable that Kong will soon fight his fellow monsters, Godzilla especially, but there’s joy to be had here, in seeing Kong in his natural element. Kong: Skull Island may well end up as somewhat of a bottle episode in the grand monsterverse, and it’s a fine distraction, more or less.
Kong: Skull Island is now playing in theaters.