Sunday, March 12, 2017


Kong: Skull Island is the best movie that Ray Harryhausen never made.

If that sounds like your jam, you're set. Go see it on as large a screen as possible and enjoy the popcorn and giant beasties.

But if you need to hear more, well. . .

Skull Island delivers pretty much exactly what the trailers have been promising for months now. It's the 1970's, and there's an uncharted island. Kinda shaped like a skull. No one's too sure what lives there, but John Goodman's Bill Randa of Monarch Industries (the creature-hunting company you may or may not remember from 2014's Godzilla) thinks there's monsters. Turns out he's right - the place is lousy with monsters, one in particular who doesn't take too kindly to the land-sat team and their military escort dropping seismic charges to map the island.

That'd be Kong.

The film knows it has the goods when it comes to Kong and the other giant creatures that inhabit his island, and wastes no time in showing them off. In overall construction has more in common with creature features of the 1950s, '60s and '70s such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jules Verne's Mysterious Island than with Merian C. Cooper's 1933 original, in that it assembles an ensemble of characters with varying motivations and allegiances and then dumps them in hostile territory where they'll intermittently get eaten my monsters or watch monsters get eaten by other monsters. If stop-motion animation titan Ray Harryhausen (special effects pioneer and ghost-director of nearly every film he worked on) had ever had access to modern CGI and $190 million, he'd have made pretty much exactly this film. And from someone who grew up on that kind of matinee fantasy adventure, that's meant as high praise.

Now, that's not to say the film has nothing to offer aside from throwback appeal of big beasties throwing each other around the place. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) shows some real spectacle chops beyond simply getting out of the way of the pre-viz guys (cough*Jurassic World*cough) and has a solid grip on character. . . when the script bothers to pause the monster mayhem long enough to give the humans something to do other than run. The cast is impressively game for the physical side of things, with Tom Hiddleston coming off as a natural action lead and Brie Larson giving a hearty taste of the charisma she'll bring to Carol "Captain Marvel" Danvers in a couple years. And it's cool to see Samuel L. Jackson finding some real pathos in what could have easily been a one-note character.

But it's John C. Reilly's Marlowe, a WWII fighter pilot stranded on Skull Island for nearly 30 years, who emerges as the film's MVP. The trailers have positioned him as the comic relief (and he's quite funny), but Reilly's strength as an actor is in finding a human core to an outwardly clownish character, and by the time the film was sprinting into Act 3, I was very invested in Marlowe making it off the island alive. It's a shame the movie doesn't give a few more beats to more of the rest of its cast (in what is certainly an over-correction to the 3-hour running time of Peter Jackson's King Kong from 2005), but there are a few other moments that come across quite well, like the clever use of a character's SAS lighter, or the letter that a soldier is composing to his kid which his squad-mates use as a way of narrating their way through the island.

Overall, real character depth and thematic heft are very thin on the ground here. But if there's none of the subtlety and depth of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim (yes, really) or the pure visual splendor of Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, or the pathos and heart of Jackson's Kong, there's for damn sure enough fun to make up for it. The film hits the ground sprinting and only pauses long enough to gather up enough pieces to hurl at its menagerie before breaking into a run again.

And if you're down for the best-slash-worst island getaway this side of Jurassic Park, you'll have a blast keeping up.

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