Monster movies carry a special appeal to a specific audience, even more so for monster-movie subgenres. All monster movies have a pulpy, B-movie essence to them in their inherent ridiculousness, but there’s a spectrum from swanky (vampires) to the UFC-esque-ness of monster-a-monster showdowns (Godzilla vs. King Kong, et al). Warner Brothers and Legendary Entertainment are taking the latter to the bank by throwing (more) “A” money at (more) “B” material with Kong: Skull Island, the second installment of a burgeoning “MonsterVerse” inititated in 2014’s Godzilla reboot.
The watchwords, then, are “dumb fun,” and on that level, Kong: Skull Island must be said to deliver. Though matters looked a bit wobbly when Michael Keaton and J.K. Simmons dropped out of the project, Legendary rallied by casting Oscar winner Brie Larson to star opposite Tom Hiddleston, with support from Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and an ensemble populated with some familiar character actors. The only problem with casting heavyweight talent: we expect more than an inherently flimsy “B”-movie scenario is likely to deliver in terms of characterization and dialogue.
Excepting a few witty bits, the actors come off like action figures in a Jurassic Park playset (skipping the “awe-shucks” part and jumping straight to the “oh crap”). Goodman and Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) play representatives of the secret research project Monarch, circa 1973. Bound to explore the remote Skull Island (“the land where God did not finish creation…a place where myth and science meet”), they lobby for a military escort of men just released from Vietnam War duty (led by Jackson) and enlist a little extra insurance in an ex-SAS mercenary (Hiddleston). Somehow, a war photographer (Larson) talks herself onto the mission.
Upon arrival, and a very hairy meeting with giant ape Kong, the mission immediately becomes one of exfiltration (a.k.a. “get the hell out of here”). That’s an attitude shared by Reilly’s character, a WWII pilot stranded on the island in 1944. Reilly steals the movie wholesale by making his island expert as nutty and warm as an almond-milk latte. Meanwhile, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (making a big move after indie calling card The Kings of Summer) cheaply references Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove…, but also handles the action with confidence.
That action builds to the fulfillment of the “MonsterVerse” promise (further teased in a post-credits scene) of monster-on-monster action. The 1933 King Kong was state-of-the-art movie magic, and the Toho monster movies (most notably Godzilla) quite the opposite. Of course, this would-be blockbuster has to dazzle, which it does with an impressively fearsome CGI/mo-cap Kong (assisted in part by actor Toby Kebbell), “King” of a primordial menagerie of deadly creatures (which foolish humans defend against with heavy artillery, toxic gas, and napalm).
Kong: Skull Island may not be a well-balanced cinematic meal—since it bears a striking resemblance to the “hollow Earth” theory Hawkins’ geologist espouses—but when weren’t these movies empty calories? It’s all very silly (complete with a brief “It was Beauty killed the Beast” breather from the action), and also a kind of bruising primordial thrill ride.