King Kong has never looked bigger or better on the big screen than he does in Kong: Skull Island, a stunning action-adventure that finds onetime Sundance sensation Jordan Vogt-Roberts ditching the sentimentality of his first film (coming-of-age indie dramedy The Kings of Summer) in favour of spellbinding visuals that make this movie feel less like a creature feature and more like a fever dream.
Set in the early 1970s near the end of the Vietnam War, the film starts with Bill Randa (played by John Goodman), a senior official in the secretly evil government organization known as Monarch, stepping out of a D.C. cab and uttering: "Mark my words, there'll never be a more screwed up time in Washington." The scene was originally shot in the fall of 2016, but the conflict beyond the screen seems eerily similar to our own: America's economy isn't what it used to be, a crook runs the White House and protesters fighting for social justice keep filling the streets.
So when Randa hits the capital with information from the newly launched Landsat program that an uncharted island exists in Southeast Asia, it seems as good an opportunity as ever for the government to send over some researchers (Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian), a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), some troops — led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), an egotistical army lieutenant colonel — and a budding photojournalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) to travel the land and document their findings. But what starts as a massive PR move to put America back on the map, at least scientifically, ends up being a secret mission to destroy a group of massive monsters (Kong among them), fearing that one day they could destroy human civilization.
Kong, as can be expected, isn't happy when he finds these new visitors; Most of the movie's conflict revolves around the almighty ape battling it out with Packard — a Captain Ahab-like character — and his crew, as well as the group of humans assembled for the journey, who end up warring with one another once the dividing lines are drawn.
Part Princess Mononoke (Vogt-Roberts has admitted that part of the production design, at least as far as the CG creatures are concerned, was inspired by the Hayao Miyazaki film), part Apocalypse Now, the action is captured beautifully here by cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman v Superman, Watchmen), who even worked with Panavision to design a lens specifically for this film, to add some more digital depth. Kong himself, meanwhile, is painstakingly created here (apparently it took a year for designers to place each of the bushy beast's 19 million hairs) by Industrial Light & Magic.
It's almost enough to mask the fact that, despite its two-hour runtime, there's not enough space for each of Skull Island's characters — played by an all-star cast that includes up-and-comers Jason Mitchell and Thomas Mann, as well as established actors like Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Marc Evan Jackson and John C. Reilly — to get some time in the spotlight. (Not much character development happens after the first 45 minutes, save for Larson's Mason Weaver, who ends up anchoring the film's moral centre, and Reilly's Hank Marlow, a stranded WWII pilot that learned to live on the island, who brings some much-needed compassion to the film's latter half.)
Still, it's a minor complaint; Kong: Skull Island is an artful, exciting and entertaining re-introduction to a classic character that helps make up the much larger MonsterVerse (with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla occupying the other half).
Bring on Godzilla Vs. King Kong. (Warner Bros.)