Walking out of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Kong: Skull Island” was like waking from a marvelous dream, in which the colors were so vivid and the adventure so wild that it makes the real world shimmer with lingering wonder. For his follow-up to the heralded and heartwarming coming-of-age comedy “Kings of Summer,” Vogt-Roberts ran with the opportunity of a beefy studio budget to build a massive, marvelous monster movie with chock-full or charm, oddity and action.
Set in 1973, at the tail-end of the Vietnam War, this reboot of “King Kong” takes audiences to the towering beast’s home turf, a newly uncovered island inhabited with skyscraper-high spiders, battle-ship-sized squids, and something even bigger and badder that lurks beneath the surface. An American scientific expedition backed by a trigger-happy military squad descends by helicopter to explore Skull Island. Naturally, Kong is quick to bat these whirring invaders out of the sky like pesky mosquitos. From there, the scattered soldiers, scientists and civilians–including a quick-witted photojournalist (Brie Larson) and a steely tracker (Tom Hiddleston)–must band together to survive the merciless terrain and ravenous wildlife, and make to their extraction point. Along the way, they’ll come face-to-face with prehistoric creatures, a resilient tribe, and a stir-crazy American pilot (John C. Reilly), who crash-landed on the strange island nearly 30 years before.
With a script overflowing with characters and setups for monster-centric shenanigans, Skull Island feels like a sandbox where Vogt-Roberts is happy to play in dueling threads. As Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, Samuel L. Jackson leads a squad of hard-nosed soldiers, collecting the dog tags of the fallen and swearing revenge on the gargantuan gorilla who swatted them out of the sky. Hungry for a war he can win, Packard’s thread leans into the obsession and thirst for destruction of “Apocalypse Now,” giving the PG-13 adventure violence so shocking and graphic that it’ll likely have parents slapping protective palms over the bulging eyes of younger audience members. Meanwhile, the photographer and the tracker uncovered local lore of Kong, discovering he is not the island inhabitant the tribesmen fear, but rather their protector against the dreaded and merciless “Skull Walkers.” And so they must stop the mad Packard from trying to topple the kind-hearted titan before it’s too late!
Throughout the film, Vogt-Roberts touches on requisite imagery of the King Kong franchise, like Kong swiping at airborne vehicles, and a beautiful blonde be lifted in the beast’s big, coal-black palm. But the dynamic director carves his own creation with a playful post-modern adventure that combines the immersiveness of video games with the absurdity of “Indiana Jones” action, the earnest drama of war movies, and the unchecked whimsy of John C. Reilly. He even adds a dusting of unexpected Easter Eggs with nods to Jurassic Park (Jackson sneering, “hold onto your butts”) and Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show (Reilly wearing a jacket emblazoned with Steve Brule’s motto “For your health!). It’s a stew of eccentric influences that makes for an odd but delicious cinematic experience.
Point-of-view shots again and again throw audiences into the shoes of soldiers trekking through this jarring jungle terrain full of threats out of ancient eras and legend. Like a first-person shooter game, this makes these dangers feel all the more real, bolstered by a sound design that submerges the audience into a sea of insect clatter, bird calls, and chilling howls. And the fight scenes offer a zeal for violence and imaginative blows that could only come from a filmmaker who grew up on video games, where sparring warriors not only wrestle and punch, but also pull out finishing moves and spinal columns.
The soldiers with their rifles are all business. But when it comes to the wily Reilly and an on-alert Hiddleston scuttling through a bone yard where giant ribcages rise over their heads like palm trees, the action takes on a savory scrappiness and joyful lunacy. Recalling some of Indy’s most frenetic yet fearsome moments, Hiddleston’s heroism peaks in a battle where he wields a sword while cutting through the fog of war wearing a gas mask. Full of verve and spontaneity, it’s one of the strangest but most satisfying moments this “Kong” offers.
Hiddleston is an able leading man, striding through the jungles with rippling muscles and an alluring confidence. Yet Larson matches him with an easy charm and a stirring self-possessiveness, rejecting all the of the “damsel in distress” squealing and flailing often associated with this franchise. (Plus, we’re spared a tired and unearned romance.) Jackson is a fiery delight, and John Goodman — as a dubious explorer — delivers a giddy gravitas to lines like “Monsters are real.” But Reilly is the standout, bringing a contagious exhilaration to escape scenes, and turning every line reading into a raucous punch line. He is joy unbridled and glorious. But even he can’t compete with Kong.
Never before has this iconic gorilla looked so magnificent and real. I speak not only of the top-notch CGI that pits Kong against helicopters and monsters in a seamless blend of practical and visual effects, but also of the thoughtful blend of motion-capture and animation that gives the language-less animal warmth and character. As Kong tenderly touches an open cut on his arm, his lip curls in a relatable snarl of pain. When he stumbles upon a grabby underwater beast, he reacts with crisp frustration, but then contentment as he rips off its legs for a munchable mid-day snack. Little moments like this make him more than a monster, so as he barrels into an explosive climactic showdown, he is our champion!
You can feel Vogt-Roberts’s enthusiasm in every frame. His only fault is he puts too too much into his monster epic. The script is so overloaded with thinly drawn minor characters, that too few matter. While the heroes and villains are scintillating, these underdeveloped others suck up screen time with little impact. I suspected the high character count was to allow for a high body count, but a surprising number of “who’s that guy again” figures survive. Similarly, the film is overzealous in its ’70s soundtrack, blaring songs like “Time Has Come Today,” “White Rabbit” and “Run Through the Jungle” to the point where it’s not so much setting the scene as distracting. If only Vogt-Roberts had paired down the smaller parts and big music moments, this beast of a movie could have been a bit leaner and meaner. But even with this bit of bloat, “Kong: Skull Island” is a lively adventure that boasts bonkers battles and a wondrous wallop of star power from its humans and beasts alike.
“Kong: Skull Island” opens March 10.