Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ Is A King Sized Adventure


We really didn’t need another King Kong movie. That being said, it’s a relief that the one we got is “Kong: Skull Island“. While not reinventing the cinematic wheel, it’s a blockbuster that knows where the money shots are. You’re going to get what you pay for here, and if you’re paying to see Kong in action, you’ll be satisfied. Whether he’s smashing helicopters, battling giant creatures, or staring into the eyes of a beautiful blonde, his greatest hits are in play. If the humans can’t quite keep up with the giant ape, well that just seems to be par for the CGI blockbuster course.

“Kong: Skull Island” puts all of its attention into being a fun and thrilling experience. In some ways, it wants to be almost a theme park style experience. There’s more “Jurassic Park” or “Jurassic World” here than the most recent “Godzilla“. It’s an odd choice on the surface, due to this film being meant to tie into that latter one, but it works. Considering that they’ll eventually be tying in at some point, this will be pleasing not just to audiences, but to Warner Brothers as well. There’s a small mint to be made off of another “King Kong vs Godzilla” film, so however they ultimately get there, you can bank on the powers that be getting there.

Set right as the Vietnam War is ending, we meet the Monarch Corporation’s Bill Randa (John Goodman), a man desperate to fund an expedition to the uncharted land known as Skull Island. Along with his underling Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), he talks a Senator (Richard Jenkins) into getting government approval. He’s even gifted a military escort, led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a solider at a loss with the war coming to a close. Randa also adds a tracker in ex SAS operative James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a war photographer in Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Then, it’s off to Skull Island, though the seismic charges they drop wake up its inhabitants, including Kong, who is none too happy to see them. That encounter leads to some casualties, the first of many.

Once on the island, the crew is split up into multiple groups. Packard and Randa are in one group, moving about the island with the remaining soldiers, as the former seeks vengeance against Kong for the death of his men. Another group includes Conrad and Weaver, who meet a stranded World War II pilot in Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been on the island for decades. He explains to them how Kong is a protector on the island and a god to the indigenous people. The charges have woken up some of Kong’s enemies, including monsters known as skull diggers. They’re a far bigger worry to them, and eventually, they’ll have to team up with Kong, especially as Packard begins to lose his grip. It’s a spectacle, through and through.

If there’s a big shortcoming here, it’s that the film basically wastes its entire cast. With the exception of a gonzo John C. Reilly, everyone is underserved. Even a normally reliably crazy Samuel L. Jackson is pretty muted throughout. Giving Brie Larson so little to do is almost a crime, though that’s sort of the nature of this beast. It’s yet another recent Best Actress winner (this one for “Room“) taking essentially a paycheck gig. Alas. The same goes for John Goodman and Corey Hawkins in their roles. Tom Hiddleston suffers a similar fate as well, which is curious considering he’s ostensibly the action lead. They’re just all in the shadow of Kong.

Also in the cast, aside from the aforementioned Richard Jenkins cameo, are a collection of solid character actors. Toby Kebbell does double duty, not just motion capture work as Kong, but also as a sympathetic solider. Tian Jing, Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Terry Notary, John Ortiz, and Shea Whigham make up the rest of the cast, and they all do just fade into the background. Reilly overall is best in show, not counting Kong, who truly is King here.

Continuing the trend of filmmakers getting a blockbuster after one independent success story, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is at the helm here. Luckily, he shows no signs of his ambition exceeding his grasp. There’s a confidence on display that begets his experience level. Armed with a small screenwriting army in Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, John Gatins, and Dan Gilroy, Vogt-Roberts aims for fun at all times. The Vietnam setting leads to some small commentary, but it’s never too heavy handed. Men go to war but often never come home, and the various forms that takes. It’s a tried and true comment, and the group doesn’t milk it too hard. Neither do they go overboard in terms of “Apocalypse Now” and “Heart of Darkness” homages. Clearly, the thought was there, but they showed restraint. The writing team is pretty classy for a blockbuster, and that helps in avoiding some of these pitfalls.

Visually, this is an action adventure orgy. There are all sorts of creatures, both passive and aggressive. It’s very creative, minus the unnecessary need to again have a giant spider on the island. Larry Fong‘s cinematography gives us the close ups we want, while never getting too kinetic. Everything mixes with Henry Jackman‘s score to give every action beat a rousing feel. As for Vogt-Roberts, the jump in scope from “The Kings of Summer” to “Kong: Skull Island” is impressive.

Overall, “Kong: Skull Island” strips itself down to be somewhat of a no frills blockbuster. There’s no time for romantic subplots or a bloated running time. It’s all about survival and Kong doing his thing. If anything, this movie could have used a bit more Kong. Aside from that and the aforementioned underutilized cast, the film is truly effective. This really is the sort of thing that will satisfy its intended audience. All hail the King!

“Kong: Skull Island” is distributed by Warner Brothers and opens in theaters on Mar. 10.

GRADE: (★★★)