It always seems like making a giant monster movie should be a no-brainer, but given some of cinema’s recent failures, it’s clearly harder than we think. The most egregious big-budget mess of recent memory was the 1998 Godzilla film, which tried to make a sitcom out of the big green lizard. Then we had the 2014 version, which made spectacular use of special effects and told a solid story, but was far too grim and joyless a film. On the giant ape side of things, the most recent misstep is Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, who took the kitchen sink approach and just hurled every conceivable idea into his story, creating a bloated, three hour ode to filmmaking ego that left me feeling like I’d been hit by a shovel by the end of it.
Capturing the tone is the hardest part, it appears. Pacific Rim is an example of a flawed film that nails its tone just right despite its blemishes, making it an overall enjoyable experience. So it was with surprise and a bit of delight when I discovered that Kong: Skull Island hits more or less that same tone. It’s a fun movie, a big, loud, chaotic, at times even a little scary film that despite its fair share of flaws, manages to succeed overall. It’s occasionally kind of dumb, but dumb in the way that a big, exciting B-movie should be.
This time around, the film makes the wise decision to eschew simply retelling the tale of the 1933 classic, and instead borrows similar concepts from 2014’s Godzilla (and there are hints that they may even exist in the same cinematic universe). The film takes place at the closing of the Vietnam war, where a scientist named Randa (John Goodman) and his two assistants, Brooks and Lin (Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian) are seeking to explore a previously uncharted island in the Pacific. Accompanied by a photojournalist (Brie Larson) and a British mercenary (Tom Hiddleston) and using a military escort led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), they fight through terrifying storms to find an island filled with equal parts wonder and terror. There are massive beasts of all kinds roaming the island, a mysterious native people, and a WW2 pilot (John C. Reilly) who crashed there 30 years prior. Soon, the fight for survival begins, with the group fractured into smaller parties, each solving a small piece of the island’s mystery.
The cast is large and diverse, which is refreshing, and while there’s only a small amount of development given to each one of them due to both the size of the cast and the pace of the film, there’s enough to know and enjoy the individual performances. Those performances are good fun, particularly Reilly’s eccentric nutbar, trapped on an island of monsters for decades and just a little bit… off. Larson and Hiddleston play well off of each other, and while there’s chemistry, there’s no tacked-on lazy romance. Jackson does his best to channel Brando in Apocalypse Now, and Larson is thankfully not written as a damsel in distress, but rather a tough, independent-minded character whose role is ultimately critical for the team’s survival. In fact, it’s worth noting that both the ethnic and gender diversity of the film is natural and organic, with few stereotypes. If anything, it’s unbelievable simply because this is supposed to be 1973. But each player has an equal stake in the story, and while there are only two women, they’re not marginalized in any way. It’s a nice feather in the film’s cap.
Its wisest decision is to skip the unrelenting grimness of Godzilla, and instead, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) goes for a more straight up adventure tone, with feats of derring-do and exciting, breathless action, and it’s there that the film celebrates its B-movie genre roots. While the beginning of the film is extremely rushed, the pacing is otherwise strong, keeping equal parts action and suspense, all tied into a larger mystery. It never feels overcrowded, with its monster moments spaced out just enough to keep you engaged without being overwhelmed. It’s got healthy doses of silliness, even if a few too many jokes don’t land, and while there’s occasionally a jarring tonal shift between the giddy adventure tale and Jackson’s darker descent into madness, it still works overall. While the performances are good, you don’t really get to know the characters — instead, the film relies on the actors’ charisma to carry them along, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. But the real star is Kong himself, a massive (far bigger than any previous incarnation) creature both vicious and strangely noble, who has his own curious story to tell.
Kong: Skull Island is easily one of the better entries in the genre from recent history, and bodes well if Legendary Pictures plans on continuing to thread these narratives together towards an eventual larger, interconnected universe. It succeeds in being a relatively breezy, fun adventure filled with monsters, maintaining enough intensity to keep it from being overly campy. It’s not the dark and gritty film some of the trailers would have you believe, but instead it’s a brightly colored, gorgeously shot film with solid action and creature design, and good enough performances. It’s not the smartest film out there, but it strikes just the right tone to succeed at being exactly what it should be: a big, fun, B-movie adventure.