The story of King Kong isn't a happy one. In the classic film in which he's introduced, Kong is a stranger to our land, an immigrant so to speak, who arrives and is used and abused until he lashes out in a violent rage at the top of a skyscraper. There have been many different takes on the world's largest ape since then, including a poorly-received remake by Peter Jackson (I dig it, but let's not argue.), but never have we seen the tables flipped the way they are in Jordan Vogt Roberts's awesome B-movie spectacle, Kong: Skull Island. It's a film that places Kong fully in the power position, and humanity in his territory for once. The shift in dynamic makes for a lot of Predator-esque monster fun, while Roberts's 1970s influences, in particular Apocalypse Now, make this Kong movie a true giant.
A genius move was setting the film in 1973 at the height of the anti-war movement, leading to the conclusion of the Vietnam War. There's a strong anti-war sentiment coursing through the film, which runs in stark contrast to man's violent inclinations and war-mongering ways. The plot is simple, Predator simple, actually. A group of soldiers accompany a scientific expedition to the fabled Skull Island, where they encounter King Kong who rules over the island with an iron paw. The expedition is led by Bill Randa (John Goodman), a conspiracy theorist who believes in the existence of monsters, and begs for government funding to explore those beliefs. Of course, times are tough with the War going on, " “Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!”, he says with the innocence of someone who will never know the name "Trump". But his ranting earns him one final bankroll to a mysterious island, kept hidden by a swirl of nasty, seemingly impenetrable storms. He's going to need an escort, though, a military escort, and some outside help.
Samuel L. Jackson does his best Captain Ahab impersonation as commander Preston Packard, who is still smarting from the U.S. "abandonment" of Vietnam, which he believes was caused by the media coloring public perception. That makes things awkward when the expedition is joined by anti-war photographer Mason Weaver, somehow allowed along on what is ostensibly a mapping operation. Tom Hiddleston is troubled British mercenary James Conrad, a tracker who has never found his way home from conflict. Others along for the journey are scientists played by 24: Legacy's Corey Hawkins and The Great Wall's Jing Tian, while accompanying soldiers are played by Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, and Toby Kebbell. As you probably expected, with a film like this there isn't a ton of character depth but the screenplay, credited to a battalion of four writers, does a good job of distinguishing each. Mitchell's character has mommy issues, Whigham's a war fetish, and Kebbell just wants to see his son again.
Hurtling through the electric storm in their helicopters, it isn't long before they start dropping seismic bombs all over the place. And you can imagine this pisses off you know who. When Kong first arrives, thankfully very early on not like the well-hidden Godzilla from a couple years ago, it's a stunning, jaw-dropping experience. He smashes through the fleet of helicopters and barrels through their barrage of cannon fire. Roberts, who broke out with the revelatory coming of age comedy The Kings of Summer, shows he's as expressive an action director as he is with character pieces. The initial attack is devastating and chaotic, yet Roberts never lets his stylistic flourishes (of which there are many) interfere with our understanding of what's going on. Characters are separated by miles as the helicopters go down with Kong's crushing blows, and yet we still have an idea of who is where. That level of action choreography is tough for even seasoned filmmakers to master.
Understandably, there's a bit of a lull as the film re-orients itself, but things pick up immediately with the arrival of John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a wacked-out loon who has been living on the island with a native tribe since WWII. He's a total kook but he knows the island, he knows Kong, and he knows what the real creatures to fear are. He calls them "skull crawlers", although he thinks the name sounds stupid, and they are creatures that look like they spring from a Jurassic Park nightmare sequence. The arrival of Marlow and the natives is a sign that not everything on Skull Island is a monster needing to be destroyed, but convincing the vengeful Packard of that is another story.
There are a number of things that separate this King Kong movie from the rest, but the biggest thing is where its located. If you're going to set the story on Skull Island then make that kind of an effort worth it. Roberts does that by making Skull Island a wondrous place where dangers lurk over every moss hill, but there are also sights of incredible beauty. It's a place where peaceful giant yak creatures graze, while man-eating pterodactyls hover overhead. Many of the most beautiful images are captured, appropriately enough, through the lens of Weaver's camera, and they aren't just limited to the island's less-human denizens.
As for Kong himself, they didn't go wildly overboard in redesigning his look. He's definitely less simian and more like a monster, and that may be a calculated move given the franchise aspirations. By now you probably know Kong will eventually lead to a crossover with Godzilla as part of a monster cinematic universe. This version of Kong, who towers over the mountains like a great animal god, could go toe-to-toe with Godzilla any day. He is an incredible creature to behold and is treated as such, both in the way he is shot, and in the reactions from those who have the fortune (or misfortune) to witness his majesty.
There's no doubt who this movie belongs to, and it's not the human characters running around trying to avoid getting stomped. Hiddleston and Larson are the big draws here, but they don't really dominate the story at any point. In fact, nobody stands out as the true protagonist, although an upbeat closing credits sequence makes the case for an unexpected supporting character. Kong: Skull Island truly belongs to Kong, and it's the best King Kong movie since the 1933 classic. While I'm less enthused about the idea of a crossover ruining what makes this movie unique, if it turns out to be half as good as Kong: Skull Island, then bring on more monsters and LET THEM FIGHT!
Rating: 4 out of 5