The same year Universal Studios introduced us to The Invisible Man, another iconic movie monster made his very first appearance on the silver screen. I’m of course referring to King Kong, a giant ape who won over millions of hearts after being plucked from his home and gunned down in New York City. The classic 1933 film was remade in 1976 and then again in 2005; 84 years after he was first unleashed, Kong is back once more in a brand new adventure that delivers off the charts entertainment.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island begins right at the tail end of the Vietnam War, in 1973. Led by scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman), a team of explorers and fresh-out-of-Vietnam soldiers make a treacherous trip to an uncharted island in the Pacific that was only recently discovered by satellites. It’s called Skull Island, and it’s home to the mighty ape known as Kong. The massive beast isn’t so happy about their disruptive arrival, nor are the various other monsters that inhabit the island.
It’s no secret by now that Kong: Skull Island is the second film in Legendary’s mash-up monsterverse that began with a reboot of Godzilla and will eventually lead to the sure-to-be epic Godzilla vs. Kong. Released in 2014, the Gareth Edwards-directed universe-starter had one major problem that was noted by most who saw it: the Big G had precious little screen-time, and the monster action most of us desired was relegated to a few standout scenes. I bring this up because, in many ways, Kong: Skull Island feels like a direct response to that criticism. This time around, the titular beast takes center stage for an all-out monster melee that plays out like a child’s fantasy toy battles brought to mega-budget life.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, you could say, is the child in this equation, and he has so much fun pitting humans against monsters and monsters against monsters that I can’t imagine any monster-lover spending the 2-hours of Kong: Skull Island‘s runtime with anything short of a massive smile etched across their face; it’s a smile that’s still present on mine, hours after my own trip to Skull Island. There’s rarely a scene in Vogt-Roberts’ first Hollywood film where something cool and often downright jaw-dropping isn’t happening; even at 2-hours, it’s so lean and mean that there’s literally not a single dull moment throughout. Vogt-Roberts wastes no time getting to the good stuff, and the good stuff keeps coming until the credits roll across the screen – actually, the fun continues even beyond the credits, so be sure to stick around for a special treat.
The King Kong films have always been at the forefront of special effects advancements – the original film featured state-of-the-art stop-motion animation (among other cutting edge techniques) and Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic was brought to life with Academy Award-winning visual effects – and Kong: Skull Island continues that grand tradition. Industrial Light & Magic’s work is nothing short of awe-inspiring; Kong looks bigger, better and realer than ever before, and the various other monsters that call Skull Island home are just as impressively brought to the screen. From a giant spider that uses it legs as deadly daggers to an entire family of “Skull Crawlers,” the creatures in this one are some of the coolest I’ve seen in recent years.
Cool. That’s a word that kept echoing through my head from beginning to end, watching Kong: Skull Island at my local theater. Everything about the film is just plain cool, and there’s really no better word to describe the action-adventure experience as a whole. It’s a ’70s-style Vietnam war film crossed with a giant monster movie, and it just exudes cool from the jaw-dropping visuals right down to the period-authentic soundtrack. Iconic tracks from Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jefferson Airplane fill out the soundtrack, which is (here comes that word again) one of the coolest in recent years. The movie complements the soundtrack perfectly; it’s pure rock ‘n roll, and goddamn is it fun to both watch and listen to.
Speaking of which, it’s impossible to watch Kong: Skull Island and not recall the sounds and visuals of Apocalypse Now – Vogt-Roberts directly evokes the film’s spirit in various ways – but there’s also an Aliens feel to the whole thing that comes courtesy of the fun cast of characters who have been tasked with battling otherworldly monsters. The two standouts in the character department are Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard, an army colonel with a personal vendetta against Kong, and John C. Reilly as comedic relief Hank Marlow, who was marooned on Skull Island many years prior. Other characters like Brie Larson’s war photographer Mason Weaver and Tom Hiddleston’s expert tracker James Conrad admittedly get a bit lost in the shuffle, as they’re not as fully-realized as the ones Jackson and Reilly get to play, but the cast of characters altogether form an entertaining ensemble of human faces against the monster-filled backdrop.
And really, at the end of the day, this one is all about the monsters. I’d need to use both hands to count the number of truly epic monster sequences in Kong: Skull Island; from Kong literally ripping army copters out of the sky to a final battle that rivals the one that capped off Jurassic World, the visuals and set-pieces in Kong’s latest outing are executed with such childlike glee that they’ll make you feel like a kid again. As glimpsed in the trailer, there’s even a battle between Kong and a giant squid that will leave you breathless and have you grinning from ear-to-ear.
Kong: Skull Island is fun for the whole family, the kind of movie I would have absolutely loved as a kid, but it’s worth pointing out that it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the violence. There are an extraordinary number of casualties in the film, both human and monster, and some of the deaths are surprisingly brutal for a PG-13 movie. One standout scene in particular plays out like a gruesome homage to Cannibal Holocaust; I sure didn’t see it coming, and it shocked the hell out of me. But mostly, the violence is of the Jurassic Park variety: it’s gruesome and cruel, but it’s more fun than it is horrifying. Mostly.
In a world where so many movies fail to deliver what you really want from them, Kong: Skull Island is the rare slice of genre cinema that leaves you so satisfied you couldn’t possibly ask for anything more. Throwing aside the saga’s trademark love story, Skull Island focuses on popcorn entertainment above all else, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another giant monster movie that better embodies everything you could ever desire from, well, a giant monster movie. Jordan Vogt-Roberts knows what you want. And since you bought a ticket, he gleefully gives you every bit of it.
Kong: Skull Island is monster movie perfection.