Review: “Kong: Skull Island” Rampages on Screen Like a True Popcorn Flick

On the podcast a few weeks ago, I gave a rather strong feeling that I would enjoy “Kong: Skull Island.” However, I was far from that just a few weeks ago. When the first trailer released, I thought the film looked like a big, dumb film that struck a tone closer to DC Universe and 2014 “Godzilla,” film than a poppy monster flick. To be honest, I’m done with the “gritty” reboot phase. Batman was fine, Star Trek seemed rough,  and Bond fell off the rails with SPECTRE. Let’s not even start with the nonsense in the DC films, which combine bad filmmaking with a misunderstanding of their characters. We already live in a tough and gritty world. Why do my films need that tone to be considered “grown-up?”

However, the cast always intrigued me in a way I couldn’t quite shake. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson made for strong young Hollywood leads. Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly are actors that perpetually fascinate me for the projects they choose. John Goodman remains one of my favorite actors in the history of cinema. New favorites from “Straight Outta Compton,” Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins further show off their talents as well. It’s a deep cast, and ultimately this persuaded me to give it a chance. What I got was one of the best popcorn blockbusters in the last five years.

While some films aspire to become part of the history of cinema, some films are fine with settling for being a fun and entertaining ride for a couple hours. Movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Magic Mike XXL,” and “Jurassic World” have all found their audiences for embracing the insanity of their premises. No franchise did more soul searching that “The Fast and the Furious” before it settled on being the most batshit insane franchise in existence. This is the avenue that “Kong” chooses. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts more-or-less concedes the film is here to be a monster flick and indulges the audience with said monster. Are the people on the ground important? Kind of. You know what really makes the film work? When the giant ape monster destroys stuff. And he does not disappoint when given the chance to destroy.

The backdrop of the film lends itself to some fun choices for those involved. The camera often utilizes Brie Larson’s lens as a way of gaining a candid understanding of Skull Island. Vietnam music blares through the speakers whenever possible, giving the film a fun musical backdrop to match the tone. “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After is a dynamite track, and perfectly matches the tone early.  Perhaps best about setting it in the 1970s is that we don’t have to worry about modern tech. Instead of sending people, you would send drones today. Satellites would get more information on the island before you went in. Cell phones or mobile hotspots would make it easier to reach a rescue crew. Instead, we get an old fashion truck through the jungle. The setting gives us fun music, nostalgic tech, and perhaps the easiest way around modern conveniences.

As an ensemble piece, the actors are willing to what they have to make it work. Good actors die, ridiculous characters do ridiculous things, and Samuel L. Jackson pushes the envelope on a “Heart of Darkness” homage while referencing his past filmography. One of his early lines in the film is a callback to one of my favorite lines in his career. When the film is willing to acknowledge the audience’s relationship with these actors, then we can easily establish connections with characters. The line is not simply in the film for nostalgia-porn. After all, the character he references is DRASTICALLY different than the one he plays. Instead, the writers use this as a way for the audience to get excited for the next moments in the film, especially considering the line makes sense within the context of the film. It’s an easter egg to those in the know rather than an outward attempt at cashing in on nostalgia. 

One of the most curious things I’ve seen in the discussion of this film is that Skull Island’s departure from the source material was disconcerting for some. Multiple podcasts and reviews have directly questioned why this film exists when Peter Jackson made his version of the film in 2005.  Just some issues I have with that line of logic. 1) Peter Jackson basically remade the original,  but with modern technology. He adds a couple things for sure, but it’s the same basic storyline. 2) Why can’t we play in the same universe with the fun toys? Isn’t this exactly what we want the new “Star Wars” films to do? Let’s bring some originality into tired franchises. 3) This same line of thinking didn’t come up when Peter Jackon’s came out simply because we knew he was behind “The Lord of the Rings.” He wasn’t the first remake of Kong. He was the 2nd. In 1976 John Guillermin made a remake of the film starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Thank god the new one is not another remake. I would literally cry from boredom.

All in all, I really enjoyed “Kong: Skull Island” and it is easily one of my favorite monster films in recent memory. It’s a fun blockbuster romp through the jungle. Will it have a huge cultural footprint? Probably not. Will you enjoy every minute in a theater? Enjoy it for what it is, a popcorn movie with awesome action scenes. After all, you won’t have to worry about it trying to mimic “Jaws” like it’s Monster-Verse stablemate “Godzilla.” Instead, you get lots of Kong, and it’s all just awesome.

Grade: A-

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