One of the missteps so many recent nostalgia projects have made is in thinking that all you need is the title and the familiar character names and that’s it. And honestly, with the way so many of today’s blockbusters are front-loaded, you really only need that recognition to get people in seats for a big opening weekend. Who cares if the movie is actually any good? They can slap “The #1 movie in America!” on the ads and limp their way to $200 million and everybody is happy. Except the people who showed up expecting to see something they remembered and instead getting a pale imitation.
That’s why it’s so exciting when something like Kong: Skull Island comes along. This isn’t a quick cash grab by some producers who got the rights to the Kong name and decided to toss something out there to make a buck. Yes, there’s the definite intent of creating an American kaiju cinematic universe — both with numerous dropped references to 2014’s Godzilla as well as an overt post-credits sequence — but Skull Island is a film made by people who understand Kong and the giant monster genre in general. I dare say a movie that’s basically two hours of Kong wrecking stuff is a labor of love.
If your complaint about Godzilla was too little monster, too much people — in which case I have to ask have you watched some of the Toho Godzilla films from the ’60s and ’70s??? — you’ll have no such issues here. The titular island is awash with gigantic beasts, from Kong himself to his snake-lizard from hell foes to nightmare spiders. Kong shows up before the credits even run, and he’s a constant presence in the film, both visually and as a distant roar or crashing of trees. And he isn’t the realistic giant ape of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (if any giant ape could be called realistic), but more akin to the man-in-suit version from Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. And it’s a key departure; it firmly places us in a not quite real world in a way a more simian Kong wouldn’t have.
As for the people, well, they’re mostly playing archetypes: the tunnel-visioned explorer who wants to prove he’s not crazy (John Goodman); the principled photographer (Brie Larson); the dashing mercenary (Tom Hiddleston); the driven military leader (Samuel L. Jackson). And given the kinds of films this is a throwback to, it makes sense these characters are written in broad strokes. The script (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly) actually does a nice job of sketching in the brothers-in-arms comradery of Jackson’s Army squad in the film’s longest monster-free stretch at the beginning, and Goodman has just the right tone of campy sincerity. Everyone in the cast has that same touch, but the MVP has to be John C. Reilly’s downed WWII airman. He’s both the humorous and — surprisingly — emotional heart of the film, and the sequence where we first meet him and the island inhabitants he’s been living with is some of the most intriguing world-building the movie does. Since we know Kong is headed for sequels and therefore can’t meet his end, Reilly’s story provided the film with a nice arc, and some very satisfying closure at the end of the film.
But you don’t buy a ticket for a film called Kong: Skull Island for the intense inter-personal drama. And director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knows that and delivers some spectacular monster sequences. Yes, the big fights are amazing (even if the Kong’s first battle, with a flight of Army helicopters, is such a high that the film risks peeking a little too soon), but Vogt-Roberts also invests something as simple as Kong striding through a river with a sense of gargantuan awe. Like Godzilla and Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, Vogt-Roberts understands the power of scale, of how effective simply putting something big in the same frame as something small can be.
The moment I knew we were in good hands with Kong: Skull Island was when Kong battles a completely inappropriately placed giant octopus for no apparent reason other than it would be cool to see Kong fight a giant octopus. It’s a direct nod to a similar scene from King Kong vs. Godzilla, and that moment told me these were people who knew their Kong and their Toho (as well as their Jurassic Park, based on a couple of knowing winks in that direction). In other words, they’re as nostalgic for this stuff as we are, and it shows.