KONG: SKULL ISLAND. With Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Tian Jing. Written by Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language. 120 minutes.
What do we want from a film about King Kong? Great special effects, of course. Lots of action scenes with the gigantic ape. Some human characters who are entertaining to follow. And a dash of intelligence about the mythology created for the film. We want to get a sense that the filmmakers put some thought into it beyond the CGI.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND has it all. It has an interesting setup that lets us meet Kong in the opening minutes of the film, and then provides reasons Skull Island has remained unexplored and why Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to go there now. Set in 1973, as American troops are leaving Vietnam, it even provides the expedition with a military escort led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a gung-ho soldier more interested in winning than in what “winning” means. Add to the mix a “tracker” (Tom Hiddleston) and a self-described “anti-war photographer” (Brie Larson), along with various soldiers and scientists, and the stage has been set.
For the next two hours there will be monstrous creatures, a lost civilization, a soldier (John C. Reilly) forgotten by time, and Kong. A key thread of the story is trying to determine Kong’s role on the island. Many of the new arrivals do not survive their first encounter, and initial viewers may want to try and predict who makes it to the end of the film. Although rated PG-13, this is not a film for the squeamish.
Estimated to cost $190,000,000 to make, the film works for the same reason that they used to say about the James Bond movies: all of the money is up there on the screen. When the characters enter the enclave of a lost civilization, you feel you could spend a few hours (rather than a few minutes) just exploring the location. We encounter other creatures on the island, most–but not all–deadly to the humans. The characters are varied enough that the fact that many of them are two dimensional (bureaucrat, nerd, hard-bitten soldier, eccentric old coot, etc.) doesn’t matter. This is a cast that can put a little topspin on what they’ve been given, so that Corey Hawkins, as Goodman’s sidekick, uses his earnestness to play off of Goodman’s character’s hype.
Which brings us back to Kong. At first just an angry force of nature, he becomes a character in the film as we learn his purpose and motivations. There is a scene at the end of the very long credits sequence that suggests Kong will be back and he won’t be alone. So grab the popcorn and sit back like a kid at a Saturday matinee. “Kong: Skull Island” is the real deal.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.