"Monsters exist. Nobody believed me."
Indie filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes his big Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking leap and takes on the King Kong monster franchise in his 1970s post-Vietnam War set Kong: Skull Island action movie mashup inspired by Apocalypse Now. Instead of the usual juxtaposition of the famous giant ape destroying the big city, this adventure happens almost entirely in his titular mythical homeland.
The Kong reimagining stars Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson as our two de facto leads, a mercenary for hire and war photographer, yet they are perhaps the most superfluous roles to the actual plot despite both their charms. Their stiff characters ably bridge all the moving parts with Larson only slightly ever echoing the damsel-in-distress portrayal with a much more empowered bent. Hiddleston is clearly set up as the bad ass hero but his utilitarian leader role soon gives way to a few of the more dynamic supporting cast of character actors and veteran comedians.
This Kong story takes more of its queues from kaiju monster movies using the unique home field advantage for the Eighth Wonder of the World battling other monsters. The overall design and creature special effects of Kong and the many different monsters by Industrial Light & Magic are superb and feel suitably hyperrealistic in the foreign land with lush cinematography from Larry Fong.
The clearest link and connection to this new greater Legendary monster universe is the upfront inclusion of the mysterious Monarch government organization first introduced in the 2014 American reboot of Godzilla. It's a much less serious, grim film that that using its period throwback setting for fun visual cues, classic rock music montages, and sly cultural references.
The rest of the ensemble cast features many notable faces and is sprawling to say the least. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins as shadowy Monarch agents are our similarly utilitarian exposition machines, teasing a larger monster-verse, telling us and other characters about their research, the history of the island, and about the monsters they find. Goodman is a welcome presence elevating the material while Hawkins looks a bit uncomfortable spouting random scientific data points in his uncomfortable thick-rimmed glasses.
One of the more developed roles is occupied by a boisterous Samuel L. Jackson as the war-crazy Colonel Packard, riffing on his angry persona, who has a meaningful arc seeking revenge on Kong. Packard commands a bevy of interchangeable and underused but mostly likeable soldiers. When the teams get split up, the different group dynamics start to play out commenting on their disillusionment of war while revealing the problematic nature of human involvement in foreign conflicts.
The massive cast makes for some short introductions and on-the-nose dialogue spouting character feelings and motivations in short order to adequately round out the focused mission to move things along in the quickly-paced but lean monster movie. However, John C. Reilly is the hands down MVP as the energetic comic relief and heart of the film playing Marlow, a WWII pilot stranded on Skull Island for twenty-eight years. His character bookends the film with some needed, if slightly unearned, heartfelt material effortlessly filling in gaps in the Kong lore explaining the balance of nature on Skull Island.
The jam-packed b-movie script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly frames the film as an ensemble mission movie constantly setting up its epic battles. Things go along fairly straightforwardly wasting little energy on much nuance or subtlety. The immediate post-war setting echoes a sense of chaos in the world summed up nicely, if obviously, by the film's very first line exclaiming, "Mark my words, there will be never be a more screwed up time in Washington."
Kong: Skull Island takes the exposition-heavy approach to blockbuster filmmaking while somewhat struggling to juggle a massive ensemble cast but mostly succeeds in its ambitions for visually pleasing fun. It uses its '70s post-Vietnam War setting to lightly explore modern political issues and tell its big action story with style. Vogt-Roberts' confident direction and deep cast make the dazzling CGI action all the more thrilling. Its occasionally very weird detours make it an especially refreshing and unconventional monster movie mashup.
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