- RETURN OF THE KING: "Kong: Skull Island" is a stylized, monster-sized dose of adrenaline and eye candy.
No other King Kong in movie history — even Peter Jackson's from 2005 — can step to the great beast rendered in "Kong: Skull Island." Dude here is at least 100 feet tall, twice the height and vastly more massive than you've seen him before. And director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' mind-blowing, crowd-tickling monster movie gives him tons of screen time. The first Kong glimpse comes three minutes in when the ape peeks over a cliff to break up a knife fight between an American flyboy and a Japanese Zero pilot who have jointly crash-landed on a jungle-strewn Pacific island during WWII. Kong is the size of a skyscraper, and as richly rendered as any special effect animal in the history of movies. You want to see him get into fights, and he does, plenty, and it is dope.
This is a movie that knows what you, as a former child, want to see: savage fights between a gargantuan ape and a bunch of helicopters, or said ape and huge lizards or sea monsters. This is a very fine hour indeed for Industrial Light & Magic: The fine granularity of Kong's hair, the gold standard for how real he'll look, has increased tenfold in 10 years. The freakishly hi-def "Planet of the Apes"-quality look/feel helps you get past the scant expositions and explanations and straight to the good stuff. This is not an intellectual exercise, ultimately, so much as an extended music video or a $185 million YouTube highlight reel. Overthink it if you like; this is all set in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, and allegory abounds. (Why so much military force, 'muricah?) But mostly just sit back and watch a big ape fight big lizards amid some wisecracks and a low-cal "Heart of Darkness" plot.
Oh, right! Speaking of, it's a doozy. It's the early '70s, and shady but determined scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) uncovers satellite evidence of a tropical island that has been shrouded in a perpetual hurricane for centuries. He gathers a military escort, led by Gen. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), smarting from being freshly ordered out of Nam, and accompanied by blandly heroic tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and subversive war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larsen) to get to the island, chart it, and get back through the impenetrable hurricane in one piece. Surrounding them are a whole lot of soldiers and scientists who get killed in fabulously unpleasant ways, first when they encounter Kong in a pack of doomed helicopters, and later as they amble around and encounter horrible, colossal animals of all sorts. (Pity the man, in one memorable example, who is impaled on the spear-like leg of a tremendous spider stepping its way across the jungle floor.) Long-lost pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) shows up midway to take the edge off and maybe help everyone survive, if they listen to him — wait, nope, there they go, getting eaten by dragon-scale lizard-snakes.
Ultimately "Kong" does a better job of deflating tension than of building it. Got a character bent on a heroic self-sacrifice to keep his comrades safe? Meh, have a lizard monster tail-slap him against a mountain instead, ker-blooie. Got an idealistic photographer making a better-angels appeal to a mad general bent on killing Kong? Have him let her know, with no uncertainty, that she's full of it.
The lack of pretense and complexity shouldn't obscure what is, in fact, a difficult feat of filmmaking here. Rarely does a minute pass in "Kong: Skull Island" when you're not emotionally engaged on some level: laughter, wonder, dread, adrenaline-awe. It may not be high art, but it's an impressive feat of balance, tone and ape-on-dragon swamp brawling.