Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island ★★★★½

Brass tacks: what does anyone hope to get out of this movie? This '70s-culture-homaging, "Apocalypse Now"-riffing, Michael Crichton-spirited sci-fi horror action popcorn movie about a scientific/military expedition to a monster island where a gigantic ape fights dino-creatures? Me, I wanted a big fun ride, and I got more than my money's worth. Barring the originality and technical marvels of the glorious original from 1933, "Kong: Skull Island" is more pure and savory a blockbuster roller coaster than any prior movie with the beast's name on it.

If the impending battle between Kong and Godzilla begins with a comparison between their two recent movie reboots through Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, Kong already has a considerable upper hand. "Godzilla" 2014 was a'ight but the faults in it were as enormous and distracting as a nuclear-enhanced lizard stomping through a metropolis. "Kong: Skull Island", by contrast, gets so much right that it makes you giddy on several occasions. Unlike "Godzilla", it embraces a B-movie tongue-in-cheek sentiment from the very beginning, presenting the characters and scenarios in effective, digestible, and often slyly exaggerated form.

I imagine there will be complaints about an under-developed cast, but this movie squeezes in double the normal amount of people we're expected to get to know and care about in something like this, and yeah they're not all explored beyond a dimension or two, but those dimensions are punctuated with the right beats and portions of a rainbow of mentalities, plus the whopping cast pretty much sells itself on how cool it is (Tom Hiddleston makes being the hero sexy and sympathetic, Brie Larson makes the female lead self-assured and even kind of jubilant, Samuel L. Jackson sells his antagonist as a victim of Vietnam madness rather than just a cartoon bad guy, John Goodman can recite some damn fine rat-a-tat patter and ominous monologues alike, and John C. Reilly - welcome back, man! It's been too long since you had a big part in a live action mainstream movie - even turns in a memorable performance, somehow supplying most of the film's comic relief AND poignancy AND heroism).

The other MVP here is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, handily the most impressive yet in this new lineage of inexperienced indie filmmakers catapulted to massive franchise gigs. While "Godzilla"'s Gareth Edwards and "Jurassic World"'s Colin Trevorrow showed adequate leadership skills, their work (including Edwards's "Rogue One") is primarily studio-curated and practically anonymous, whereas Vogt-Roberts helms the hell out of "Kong" with rocket-fueled momentum, symphonic editing, creative shots whose vibrant, mystical lighting and colorization are often stunning and all too brief (gonna enjoy re-watching this over the years), and a keen awareness of two key ingredients for maximum crowd pleasing success: a joyous pop music soundtrack, and an eye for emphasizing scale at every turn.

Whatever people might dislike about this new version of Kong - the inconsistency that these ground-trembling behemoths can sometimes sneak up on characters, or the relative lack of imagination on the design of the Skull Crawlers (though to me they still look better than the plain grasshopper-inspired MUTOs from "Godzilla"), or, uh...that Kong only has one facial expression (really mad)? - they shouldn't take for granted what savvy, classical escapism it is. Not the least bit ashamed or bored to be a monster movie, it's big budget entertainment with flavor and flair, and it doesn't even need 2 hours to get the job done! It really, plentifully delivers.

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