Big Picture Big Sound

Kong: Skull Island Review

By Lora Grady

Ape Expectations

Chances are you're headed into the weekend with a pretty well-established sense of your interest in "Kong: Skull Island": basically, you're a fan of old-school monster movies, or you're not. You're willing to suspend your disbelief and go with the idea of a gargantuan ape stomping around on a mysterious, fog-shrouded South Pacific island, or you're not. You're gonna be entertained by a bunch of guys desperately fighting off a spider the height of a skyscraper, or - well, you get the idea.

For anyone ready to dismiss "Kong" as a cheesy throwback, or fearing an ill-conceived reboot a la "Godzilla" 1998, surprise! This fun, funny reimagining of the 1933 classic retains the grand scale and breathless scares of the original while briskly incorporating a modern sensibility. "Kong" also makes splendid use of both the IMAX and 3D format options, so if you have the chance, go see this one in all of its towering, eye-popping glory.


This latter-day telling of the Kong saga jettisons the damsel-in-distress and Empire State Building angles, preferring instead to stick with the front half of the original story, where a bunch of explorers with diverse motives set out for an unexplored tropical island and run afoul of the great ape. The expedition is headed by Bill Randa (John Goodman, "10 Cloverfield Lane"), who fronts a sketchy government research agency - and he's not exactly transparent about what kind of research he does. He's backed by Lt. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, "The Legend of Tarzan") and his battle-hardened post-Viet Nam squadron, and accompanied by wartime photographer/tough cookie Mason Weaver (Brie Larson, "Room"). Disillusioned British military vet James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston, "High Rise") signs on as a tracker, and soon the crew are flying over the gorgeously unspoiled island and - what else? - dropping bombs.

They're ostensibly markers for seismic research, but said detonations rouse the sleeping Kong, who towers over the proceedings and smacks military helicopters out of the air in a nice callback to the original film's iconic standoff atop the Empire State Building. This stops the expedition members in their tracks, as they're scattered, half-decimated, and stunned by their encounter with the colossal primate. Now grounded, those who've survived Kong's wrath rally and begin trekking toward the end of the island where an extraction crew will meet them in several days' time. The lush tropical foliage and clear watering holes initially seem bucolic, but the crew soon learns that this will be no walk in the park.

One of the fun elements of "Kong" is that it subverts expectations and plays against genre cliches, so such timeworn setups as the soldier heading off for a mission with a sentimental letter half-written to his son, or the battle-weary vet making a heroic stand with a couple of grenades, don't go where you'd expect them to.  The casting's also refreshingly off-kilter; Mr. Hiddleston and Ms. Larson are generally known for artsier, more cerebral fare, and their presence at the top of the roster adds some welcome depth here.

These subverted expectations continue behind the scenes as well. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts doesn't have much of a Hollywood resume yet, and his debut feature, the sweet coming-of-age indie flick "The Kings of Summer", hardly seemed like the calling card for an aspiring big-budget action director. But Mr. Vogt-Roberts directs the heck out of "Kong". He also benefits from a clever script co-written by Derek Connolly, who happened to co-write "Jurassic World", so you know he's got a handle on how to pen a larger-than-life crowd pleaser.

"Kong" could have been just wall-to-wall monsters and overblown action sequences, but it's surprisingly well-balanced. Characters have compelling motivations but we don't get bogged down in backstory. And, when those monsters do show up - turns out Kong's not the only irritated inhabitant on this island - the action is genuinely heart-pounding. The monster designs really are standout features here, though to describe any of them in detail would take away the fun of those initial shock moments when they spring on hapless military men or show up to wreak havoc on a temporarily peaceful interlude.

Rather than bringing the action up to the present day the filmmakers chose to set this version of Kong in the early 70s. This allows for a creative newsreel segment that bridges the action from WWII to the post-Viet Nam era and enables a number of nods to "Apocalypse Now" while also setting up a fun subplot with the always-reliable John C. Reilly ("Sing") as another inhabitant of the "uninhabited" island. Yep, there's a lot going on here, but if you don't think too hard about it and just let yourself go along for the ride, "Kong: Skull Island" is an entertaining homage, and proof that when it comes to monster movies, Kong is still King.

What did you think?

Movie title Kong: Skull Island
Release year 2017
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary Fun reimagining of the classic monster movie modernizes while still retaining the scale and scares of the original.
View all articles by Lora Grady
More in Movies
Big News
Newsletter Sign-up
Connect with Us