Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island ★★★

It's no secret that the pool of novel, innovative ideas in Hollywood has been depleted for a while. In fact, it's rather disheartening that our country is increasingly taking steps away from combating climate change and pollution, while recycling in the movie industry is at an all-time high. The logical outcome of this unfortunate state of affairs is the second "King Kong" reboot of the century.

In fairness, the thinking is not unreasonable. In 2015, "Jurassic World" made its studio an astonishing $1.6 billion at the global box office. Monsters evidently remain popular with audiences, so it makes complete sense to give the biggest of apes another cinematic treatment, even if it has merely been 12 years since the last one. I am a fervent advocate of Peter Jackson's interpretation of the material and consider to it be a far superior effort than the 1933 classic. All nostalgia and sentimentality aside, this story simply cannot be told properly sans ultra modern CGI. Which is why am willing to overlook the flawed approach of "Kong: Skull Island" to an extent, since the effects are pretty damn impressive and the stacked cast is ludicrously overqualified for this type of picture. It shifts the setting from the Great Depression to the early 1970s, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Other than that, the premise in essence remains the same. Some guy (John Goodman in this case) recruits a group of people to travel to a mysterious, unchartered island, nobody knows what they are getting themselves into and the results are, as expected, catastrophic.

The movie has several things going for it. There are a number of unnerving scenes, usually involving a new, hideous monster popping out of nowhere and brutally killing off yet another member of the expedition. Which is not too unlike what Peter Jackson did in 2005, but in that version the deaths were mostly engrained into the spectacularly done action scenes, as opposed to primarily played for shock. Here I jumped two or three times, which is certainly appreciated. There is something to be said for the rare monster movie that actually manages to scare the bejesus out of its audience occasionally. The visual effects are stunning and Kong has never looked this terrifying before. He's a towering giant, his dark, imposing silhouette covering the sun in his first extended appearance, effortlessly ripping helicopters out of the sky. Which is ultimately what elevates "Kong: Skull Island" from a mediocre effects spectacle to a movie worth seeing.

There's a palpable sense of danger that keeps you engaged, following a somewhat sluggish start that provides the obligatory introductions to our main characters, once the eclectic crew sets foot on Skull Island. Which is important to note, as the same can't be said for most of the humans unfortunately. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are both widely respected performers with impressive resumes, but they could hardly be more replaceable here. Hiddleston is essentially the Jack Driscoll character, except that his assertive tendency to take charge on the island makes more sense for a tracker and war veteran than a screenwriter. But the extent of his involvement is really just holding a gun, while being extremely good looking of course. The same holds true for Larson, except she holds a camera, rather than a firearm; arguably the more powerful weapon during the Vietnam War as the stern career soldier Colonel Packard abrasively points out early in the movie. Packard's motivations might not be particularly novel, but his furious drive to avenge seven of his men at the hands of Kong at least makes sense. There's a reason Captain Ahab is one of the best-known literary characters to ever grace the pages of a book; revenge is one of the most primeval human motivations and always just enough to give viewers a stake in their relentless pursuits for what they'd consider to be justice. And Samuel L. Jackson is the perfect choice to play that sort of role. The most fleshed out performance without question though comes from John C. Reilly as Robinson Crusoe type World War II lieutenant Hank Marlow, whose plane crashed on Skull Island, his home for almost three decades by the time the events of the movie take place. His craziness is just subtle enough to seem real and in moments of danger he displays a cautious streak of common sense that behooves someone with his experiences. Marlow is a proper character and thus a massive outlier here.

Bottom line, it's a popcorn movie with a ridiculously high budget, sure, but there is a broad spectrum for those as well. This one has enough merits to register on the upper end of the scale and while it's stuck with the tremendous misfortune of having been released only a week after "Logan", it's still pretty solid on its own terms. And I'm not ashamed to admit that there is a small part of me that remains childish enough to look forward to Godzilla and King Kong fighting it out on the big screen in a couple of years. Be honest, so are you.

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