Let’s start with a disclaimer. There are two things you’re unlikely to experience in Warner Bros’ latest take on the King Kong mythos. The first is the myth itself – at least, in so far as you remember it. This is not your grandparents’ Kong – far from it, in fact. Nor is it as reverent and slavish to the original as Peter Jackson’s somewhat divisive 2005 take on the material. In fact, Kong: Skull Island hews closer to other recent, somewhat less lyrical kaiju films like Cloverfield, and 2014’s Godzilla, which explains why the second thing you’re less likely to experience here (particularly in comparison to Jackson’s three-hour plus epic) is boredom.
Like the recent Godzilla reboot, Kong begins with a “sizzle reel” establishing Project Monarch, the mysterious coalition striving to prove the existence of prehistoric monsters. The action opens in 1944, with two rival pilots – a Japanese (Miyavi) and an American (Will Brittain) – crash-landing onto a mysterious island, which leads to our first encounter with the legendary ape. With a banquet of beasts, stylish beasts-versus-humans set pieces and gruesome deaths on both sides, Kong: Skull Island is a creature feature hell bent on thrilling its audience. It also confirms Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse as a promising formula for reviving the titans of legend (which also makes it the more successful of Warner Bros.’ two current cinematic universes).
The bulk of Skull Island is set in 1973, charting a scientific expedition tasked with mapping out the elusive Skull Island. At the head of the rag-tag bunch of John Goodman’s Randa, a Government official, along with Yale alumnus Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing Tian), and a whole lot of soldiers – from the team’s guide, Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of the aptly naked helicopter squadron, the Sky Devils. Sensing that Randa has neglected to disclose the true nature of the operation, war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) decides to book a seat on the perilous ride.
That’s a lot of characters to cover, and we haven’t hit on the most important one yet: Kong, himself. Though, if the film as a whole lacks substance, the sheer quantity of interesting faces more than makes up for it, with the script taking its time to establish its ensemble so that when the action begins (and boy, does it), we remain absorbed. After a visceral sequence where Kong dismantles the island’s new guests using a combination of brute force and the team’s own choppers, the cast is divided into three groups. In this way, Skull Island receives a proper canvassing; each group traverses a different location and encounters various, seemingly Hayao Miyazaki-inspired beasts – all of which offer eye-opening (if fleeting) set pieces of their own. Still, while the multiple threads keep the pacing appropriately brisk (a one-up on Jackson’s flick), it inevitably spreads an already bloated cast a little too thin, which makes the hazy human element in Kong even blurrier.
It’s a missed opportunity since previous and – in some ways – more memorable iterations of Kong (the 1933 and 2005 films in particular) found the balance between spectacle and humanity. Then again, this Kong more than matches its predecessors in pound-for-pound excitement – and the action itself never extends beyond the island itself (no skating in central park here). That, along with strong VFX, and a stellar sense of retro-style (courtesy of director of photography, Larry Fong and ILM), ensures that hearts will beat fast and the hours will flash by. Been a while since a major studio release has managed that.