Hollywood’s favorite giant ape roars again in ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ an entertaining, escapist adventure that hits all the right monster-movie notes.
The giant-monster genre is hit-or-miss these days. For every critically and commercially successful Cloverfield, Pacific Rim, or Godzilla reboot, there are a dozen low-budget movies about giant sharks or other monsters that fail to even make the cut for “so bad it’s good” consideration.
Genuinely good giant-monster movies that are entertaining, compelling, and avoid making you question how you spend the finite time you have in this life are rare. That’s why it’s so fitting that King Kong, the massive ape who ushered in the giant-monster genre, is helping to revitalize it again.
As with all the best giant-monster movies, there’s a lot to like about director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ colossal creature feature, Kong: Skull Island – and not all of it has to do with the titular ape.
Helmed by Vogt-Roberts from a script by Oscar-nominated Nightcrawler writer Dan Gilroy, Jurassic World co-writer Derek Connolly, and Godzilla writer Max Borenstein, Kong: Skull Island offers a new origin story for the famous King Kong. The film follows a group of scientists and soldiers tasked with investigating a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean; they make the sudden – and deadly – discovery that monsters do indeed exist, and might just prevent them from ever leaving the island.
Although the film is set in the same cinematic universe as 2014’s Godzilla, the story unfolds in 1973, making it a prequel to Godzilla that also establishes a broader cinematic universe for Legendary Pictures’ giant monsters and sets up the inevitable crossover between the two.
While that’s all well and good, Kong: Skull Island boasts a ridiculously impressive cast of human actors, too.
The Avengers actor Tom Hiddleston leads an ensemble that includes Academy Award-winner Brie Larson (Room), Oscar nominees Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained) and John C. Reilly (Step Brothers), and The Big Lebowski actor John Goodman. Straight Outta Compton stars Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell also play supporting roles, along with The Great Wall actress Tian Jing, and (fittingly) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actor Toby Kebbell.
Given such a high-profile cast, it’s no surprise that Skull Island achieves in one area that 2014’s Godzilla often struggled: Holding the audience’s attention when the film’s eponymous monster isn’t on the screen.
Kong: Skull Island wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without John C. Reilly’s performance.
Hiddleston in particular makes a strong case for himself as a capable action-hero lead, portraying an expert tracker in Skull Island who’s recruited to help them explore the island’s uncharted jungles, but soon finds himself leading the rapidly dwindling group of survivors. Best known for playing the trickster villain Loki in Marvel’s cinematic universe, Hiddleston is clearly comfortable playing a hero in Skull Island and rarely seems like a supporting act to the film’s giant star– unlike the cast of most giant-monster movies.
As the leader of the military squadron and the government agent who commissions the journey to Skull Island, respectively, Jackson and Goodman provide the sort of compelling performances we’ve come to expect from the two actors. It’s a testament to their talents that they can remain the focal point of a scene even when they’re featured alongside a massive, monstrous gorilla, and their presence ensures that Skull Island maintains its momentum when there aren’t any monsters on the screen.
Although she occasionally slips into a damsel-in-distress role, Larson also shows some action-movie chops, and she plays off Hiddleston well in the scenes they share. The presence of her war photographer character might not make a whole lot of sense in the context of the film, but Larson makes it work with a performance that distracts from the narrative questions raised by her role.
The most memorable performance of the entire film, however, comes from Reilly – and the studio should be commended for not spoiling too many of his best moments in the trailer.
Reilly provides the majority of the film’s lighter moments in his role as a World War II fighter pilot who crashed on the island decades earlier and might have a tenuous grip on reality due to all the years he spent waiting for rescue. However, he manages to be more than just comic relief.
Kong is smartly portrayed as an occasionally sympathetic, but more often terrifyingly dangerous element.
At various points, Reilly’s character says or does just the right thing – in some cases, voicing what the audience is probably thinking – to keep the movie from veering into typical monster-movie tropes. He ends up wavering between being the most eccentric character and the most rational, which almost certainly isn’t as easy to pull off as he makes it seem.
Kong: Skull Island wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without Reilly’s performance, and both the film and the studio expertly handle what they get from him.
As for Kong himself, the great ape is smartly portrayed as an occasionally sympathetic, but more often terrifyingly dangerous element in the human characters’ adventure.
To his credit, Vogt-Roberts opts to stop short of humanizing Kong in the way so many other giant-monster movies do. Instead of framing its giant star as a victim in the events transpiring around it, Skull Island makes Kong an awe-inspiring force of nature, wisely keeping a distance between its iconic ape and its human characters. This approach retains a lot of the mystery surrounding Kong and what we can expect from him, and – as the title character was handled in 2014’s Godzilla – all of that uncertainty makes him larger than life in so many more aspects than just his size.
The film complements great performances by both its human actors and its digitally created giant ape with some wild fight sequences involving Kong and other monstrous inhabitants of the island.
The brawls that involve Kong are by far the best of these sequences, and the film’s visual-effects team manages to make every fight feel unique – a task that countless other films have had a tough time accomplishing. There’s a grand sense of scale in the monsters’ fight sequences, and they’re expertly blended with the actions of the human characters on the periphery in such a way as to avoid the all-too-common feeling that the human actors are reacting to a green screen.
Kong: Skull Island is not only a worthy standard-bearer in the giant-monster genre, but an excellent reminder of the genre’s appeal as both escapist fantasy and compelling adventure that pits humanity against forces it can’t hope to control. It also improves upon the success of 2014’s Godzilla in rebooting the most iconic characters of the genre, offering a story that keeps the level of excitement and drama high even when there aren’t any monsters on the screen.