Remakes and monster movies continue to be reviled in many corners of the filmgoing public, which is surprising considering both are practically as old as the form itself. King Kong debuted on the silver screen not long after silver screens themselves took their initial bow, so the royal title remains apt to this day. The creature’s climb up the Empire State Building remains iconic, not only for the audacity of the image but the promise of the fantastic that cinema itself offered newly minted movie fans—the very idea that walking into a theater would take you away from reality and show you things you’d never see anywhere else. Clearly the great ape was built to last, as he’s turned up in one form or another over the years, most recently in Peter Jackson’s 2005 laborious love letter to the original. Fast forward 12 years and Time Warner, fresh off the relatively successful Godzilla reboot, is looking to craft its own interconnected series of blockbuster films just like all the other remaining major studios, hence Kong: Skull Island is set to be released (somewhat tentatively in March instead of tent pole-y in May). Is it a successful undertaking? The short answer is yes and no, and a somewhat longer answer follows.
First of all, you’re not going to get the coy buildup towards monster mayhem that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla offered, although you do get a credit sequence similar enough to that films’ that you’ll pick up on the universe building intentions right off the bat. Once Kong arrives, he’s in full view and he’s rampaging just the way you want him to, smacking down uninvited guests on the titular island and throwing down with its fellow oversized inhabitants on the regular. This all commences after fifteen minutes of highly perfunctory character introduction and motivation establishment. At times the dialogue and reasoning feels like it’s being generated by a scripting software app, but at least Kong: Skull Island assembles a relentlessly charming cast, from handsome Tom Hiddlesworth to Oscar winner Brie Larson to affable John Goodman and badass Samuel L. Jackson. A lesser group would have probably sunk the proceedings, as several of them—especially the purported leads, Hiddlesworth and Larson—are so underwritten it’s safe to say the film could have marched through its explosions without their presence. Fortunately Goodman and Jackson are given a bit more to do, the former harboring a belief in the fantastic that’s not explained right off the bat and the latter adopting the warmongering swagger of Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore by way of Melville’s Captain Ahab. They each have what the film comes closest to offering as far as character arcs go, and Jackson especially stands out. The best story and performance hiding in between the flying bullets and crashing helicopters belongs to John C. Reilly, a punchy World War 2 veteran looking to return to civilization with our band of heroes. He gets the strongest lines from a script that struggles to find any rhythm outside of the genre tropes we all expect.
On the plus side, Kong and his monstrous neighbors are lovingly (and of course digitally) rendered, and Larry Fong’s camera guides us around location sets ranging from Hawaii to northern Vietnam with grace and awe. Once director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (an interesting choice given the indie film and television comedy background he brings to the table) stumbles through the early expositional scenes, he does a fine job staging the carnage, chases and explosions, of which there are many. And Kong himself, in keeping with the typical incarnations of the character, really is just a hero in screaming ape’s clothing, there to provide deus ex machina services when the other creatures get too problematic. There are enough tributes, visual and otherwise, to make fans of the previous films feel right at home on Skull Island as well. In short, this is a fine action setpiece delivery system if that’s what you’re in the mood for. A perfectly fine if not transcendent slice of fantastic escapism, with the inevitable promise of more to come if enough tickets are sold.