Kong: Skull Island
March 11, 2017
Samuel L. Jackson
John C. Reilly
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
The thing I like best about Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ fun Kong: Skull Island (2017) is the way it looks and feels like a movie made by people who love the movies. Sure it has plenty in common with superior monster movies like Them! (1954) and Godzilla (1954). But it packs in so much more of a punch than your typical creature feature. As I watched the film, I could see flashes of the old-fashioned machismo of Gunga Din (1939) and King Solomon’s Mines (1950), the epic devastations of the disaster movies of the 1970s, and even the cannibal pictures that peppered the exploitation scene during the grindhouse golden age. Some could go as far as saying that Kong is an allegory for the post-war disillusionment that characterized much of Richard Nixon’s run as president (the film’s ensemble is befit with as many pacifistic characters as staunchly patriotic ones perpetually at odds with one another).
Most will simply view it as an effortlessly thrilling Hollywood blockbuster. But cinephiles in the crowd will appreciate how dedicated the movie’s makers are in proving that they’re as interested in making green as they are in making a product that does the three King Kong films preceding it justice. In Kong, we have a first-rate reboot which nearly instantaneously makes us ponder why there was ever a period during which most of the general population questioned its green-lighting in the first place.
Set in 1973 (“there will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington,” a character moans), the film revolves around a disparate band of adventurers en route to the mysterious, uncharted Skull Island. The mission: probe the presence of undiscovered species and other wonders. Surrounded by a miles-thick storm front and portrayed as a cousin to the Bermuda Triangle by those who know of its existence, all signs indicate that staying away from the isle might be wiser than trying to conquer it. But curiosity oftentimes is an unstoppable force, and the expedition, defined by military personnel (Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson), scientists (John Goodman), and media figures (Brie Larson), is kicked off almost as quickly as it’s proposed.
Only moments after the team makes their presence known, though, it’s made clear that the land in front of them isn’t nearly as ecologically utopian as they might have initially expected. Calling it something akin to the otherworld Michael Crichton dreamt up back in 1990 is more fitting. And maybe we have seen much of what Kong offers before: CGI has made the battling of monsters against humans (and, better yet, monsters against other monsters) a blasé occurrence in our technologically advanced world, and we’ve seen the "maybe humans are the real monsters" trope represented in film dozens of times. But Vogt-Roberts and company’s evident passion allows us to remember what it was like to be amazed by the miracles of computer technology before Avatar (2008) came along and seemed to decide that we shouldn’t be surprised by anything we see on screen anymore. From the crust seen under its eponymous beast’s eyes to the way we can clearly see the rough texture of a lizard foe’s cat o’nine tails tongue, we consistently marvel at how comprehensively Skull Island’s inhabitants are designed.
Complemented by a tropical scenery easy to get lost in, a cast unafraid to get down and dirty (John C. Reilly particularly stands out as an amusing crackpot), and writing that intermixes social commentary, screwball humor, and smartly placed gravitas, Kong: Skull Island is a blockbuster that crackles. Perhaps it’s early to start calling it one of 2017’s highlights. But when a spectacle is this good, you might as well consider yourself to be in the presence of a masterstroke. When it comes to the monster movie, it doesn’t get much better than this. B+
This review also appeared in The Daily.