Like Godzilla before him, King Kong has since the 1930s become a culturally permeably mainstay. A piece of cinematic iconography, King Kong is the USA’s equivalent to Japan’s giant fire-breathing lizard and both have served to define our country’s spotted history in cinematic terms. But their reach extends beyond the borders of past rivals. Each have become so ingrained in the global zeitgeist that if you plucked a child from just about anywhere on earth, they would likely be able to put a name to a photo or toy of the recognizable giants. Kong, the ape who famously fell, has found his story told a number of times but none have approached the movie monster with quite the same bombastic chutzpah and total IMAX-friendly insanity as Jordan Vogt-Roberts has with Kong: Skull Island.
Every generation has been privy to their own interpretation of Kong. The 1933 original reached dizzying acclaim and was later selected for preservation in the American Library of Congress. In 1976, adventure filmmaker John Guillermin put his spin on the same story, issuing a remake that starred Jeff Bridges and featured Jessica Lange’s film debut. It was met with middling reviews but showmanly box office spawned a sequel, King Kong Lives. In 2005, Peter Jackson, fresh off of Lord of the Rings, applied a digital sheen to the character and his environs that proved groundbreaking at the time, though has generally fallen out of good grace with most fans and critics.
All three projects tell the same familiar story, with updated effects functioning as time capsules for what was cinematically possibly at the time. Where others echoed, Kong: Skull Island, a reboot (not to be confused with a remake), finds its own voice. Foregoing the familiar tale of men absconding to Skull Island, stealing the titular ape and bringing him to NYC – which long has functioned as a thinly veiled allegory for the American slave trade – Vogt-Roberts’s adventure unfolds entirely in Kong’s territory.
The year is 1973 and Richard Nixon just announced the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. Capitalizing on fleeting US occupation, Bill Randa (John Goodman) gets a military escort to journey to one of the last undiscovered land masses on the planet. A place where, as he describes it, “myth and science meet”. Joined by roguish tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), “anti-war” photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a whole host of scientists and soldiers, Randa is the brains to Colonel Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson) ill-tempered brawn.
The company punches through an omnipresent storm front – a naturally occurring barrier to entry that has kept watchful eyes out and countless shipwrecked in – to find Kong’s verdant homestead. Operating under Houston Brooks’ (Corey Hawkins) “hollow earth” theory that posits that the crust of the earth is thinner than we suspect (and, as Randa believes, unseen species lay below the surface) the invading Americans proceed to blanket their newfound discovery with bombs, er scientific instruments, in order to map the island’s geological peculiarities.
Kong, understandably, is having none of that and promptly arrives to play smashy-smash with the battalion of attacking helicopters. The accompanying set piece is singularly spectacular; the culmination of a freewheeling director’s stylish experimentation and an army of highly capable digital wizards. Vogt-Roberts finds angles to heighten the chaos, sliding his camera through the maw of choppers as they whiz out of control, capturing fleeting glimpses of the beast who’s authored their demise, or putting us on the ground floor to gawk up at the towering monstrosity. For their sins, his toll is death as Kong stomps, swallows and flings the trigger-happy soldiers to their bone-rending end, earning a chorus of winces and satisfied laughs from audience members giving themselves fully over to the explosive tentpole pageantry.
As a directorial eye, Vogt-Roberts has a flair for the dramatic, delivering money shot after money shot in daring fashion. A Mondo poster come to life, Kong: Skull Island takes full advantage of its $190M production budget and Vogt-Roberts knows how to make a scene pop with flourishes of primary color (bright red fires, vibrant green landscapes and deep blue gases). He encases the 10-story primate in flames more than once and there’s something dictionary-definition epic about pitting the homegrown gargantuan gorilla against man’s unnatural command of the elements. As Packard declares war on the planet of the ape, we see that more often than not nature trumps man. A stormy ecosystem, Skull Island is also home to a host of creepy crawlers (nasty, two-legged lizards called Skull Crawlers, treetop-tall spiders and “fucking ants” that sing like birds) all of whom get their shot at expending the collection of invaders in their own fashion.
What might amount to a loosely fastened series of trailer-friendly VFX shots instead comes together into a tightly wound narrative that absolutely zips through its two-hour runtime. No one is safe as Kong and Company rip through homo-sapiens like wet paper and though few of the human characters have a lot of razzle dazzle, the cast rocks, down to the last supporting player. It’s not that I necessarily would need to see these characters surface again in the inevitable sequel but the performers get the job done and more, rising to the task of adding depth to characters that lack such on the page. Hiddleston is confident as a leading man, especially when he arms himself with a gas mask and samurai sword (loved this moment), and Jackson gets to play one of his many familiar shades (vengeful, arrogant, cruel) with the menacing nonchalance that only he can so casually muster.
The script, from Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), is peppered with tension-relieving jokes (John Ortiz and Marc Evan Jackson are both privy to some delicious deadpan) but its John C. Reilly’s disoriented Hank Marlow who completely steals the show. Though he at times seems to be in a different movie altogether, offering non-sequiturs left and right that I’m frankly surprised (but nonetheless delighted) made final cut, Reilly’s wild-eyed performance is the batty bow that ties it all together. For a movie about an altitudinous ape smashing dudes and fighting exoskeleton lizards, the amount of full-bellied laughs surprised even me.
From a technical standpoint, Kong: Skull Island is an unmitigated success with Vogt-Roberts and his FX team crafting pop-culture artistry with digital brushstrokes that seer themselves into the mind’s eye long after curtain. Henry Jackman’s string-heavy, brassy score is ominous, apocalyptic and bewildering, punching up the tension in moments of chaos and adding a tremendous oomph to the many dazzling battles. Jackman’s creation attacks with the flurry of Skull Island’s beastly inhabitants, sucking us further into the screen as we teeter on the edge of our seats, in awe of what can only be described as good old-fashion movie magic. That such auditory madness is punctuated by the odd Creedence Clearwater Revival or David Bowie song only serves to illustrate exactly why I enjoyed the hell out of this statuesque monster movie.
CONCLUSION: ‘Kong’ is king-sized entertainment, a riveting spectacle showcase that races from dizzying set piece to set piece, fastened by standout technical work across the board. A wowing blockbuster enlivened by a healthy ratio of chuckles (thank John C. Reilly), ‘Kong: Skull Island’ could pay more attention to its human characters but in the midst of such entertaining madness, it’s a minor complaint.