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Kong: Skull Island is admirable in its desire to get right into the good stuff. The screenplay introduces characters with two lines of dialogue, sometimes less, and the threadbare exposition functions as a break from one jaw-dropping set piece after another. This is the rousing special effects extravaganza that Jurassic World should have been: director Jordan Vogt-Roberts barely has any pretense of a story and instead lets the creatures—who are frightening, awesome, and vivid—bellow and shriek for themselves. There is some resonance here, since Kong: Skull Island serves as a metaphor for misguided American exceptionalism surrounding the Vietnam War.
It is 1973, and the war has just ended. John Goodman plays Randa, a scientist who implores a senator to fund his expedition to Skull Island, a land mass in the South Pacific that’s never been surveyed by civilization. The Senator agrees, so Goodman also requests a helicopter escort. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) quickly agrees to the assignment, eager to find meaning in the wake of a conflict that had none. The photojournalist Weaver (Brie Larson) catches wind of the voyage and talks her way on board. Randa also hires Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an English tracker who is ex-Special Forces. The expedition goes to hell seconds after they arrive: The giant gorilla Kong attacks the convoy of helicopters, so the disjointed mix of soldiers, scientists, and civilians must reckon with the island’s deadly, primordial monsters.
The name “Conrad” is one of many overt allusions to Apocalypse Now, a film whose mix of horror and spectacle helped define the era. Jordan Vogt-Roberts also includes many recognizable rock songs from the era, focusing primarily on Creedence Clearwater Revival, seemingly out of affection more than obligation. Like Apocalypse Now, Kong: Skull Island has a lengthy riverboat cruise where danger could jump out of seemingly anywhere.
Vogt-Roberts draws on this iconography as a means to create dread: The silences help make the frequent attacks all the more intense. More importantly, he does not shy away from spectacle, and the film veers from small scale moments to scenes that are enormous, even intimidating. There is a throwaway gag where one soldier watches Kong nurse his wounds, only to fight a giant octopus, and yet another where Kong’s orange eyes glimmer around explosions that are just as tall as he is. This is a film that is silly and almost stupid, but never boring.
Vogt-Roberts assembles an impressive cast. In addition to the aforementioned stars, about a half dozen recognizable character actors add credibility to the premise (Toby Kebbell pulls double duty playing a soldier and providing motion-capture for Kong). The irony of the cast is that the script gives them little to do beyond look terrified: Many of them die in perfunctory ways, and Hiddleston gets top-billing despite a handful of lines. The real heavies are Jackson, whose character veers from anger toward madness, and John C. Reilly, who pops up as Marlow, the island’s longtime guest. Marlow is an American fighter pilot who has been marooned on Skull Island since World War II. The script mines that idea for comic relief, and feigned depth, and luckily Reilly has no problem playing both light and more serious moments.
Kong: Skull Island gleefully introduces one monster after another, so there is a deeper purpose in casting stars for what amounts to an expensive B-movie. The film is about how the creatures are the real attraction, both in terms of special effects and their overall indifference to every character’s agenda. Kong is not a villain, more like a misunderstood hero, and his macro-scale fights with ghoulish, gigantic lizard monsters are a highlight. The creepier moments, like the introduction of a giant spider or a gigantic walking stick insect, add an ephemeral sense of wonder. They are a nice break from overabundant albeit well-shot action sequences, which are punctuated by useless gunfire and sudden brutality.
Like 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is a “post-human blockbuster.” The term was coined by critic David Ehrlich, and it suggests that humanity is merely a speck on a larger canvas of forces that will govern our planet long after we go extinct. Vogt-Roberts makes humans feel puny, even pointless, since the monsters have an innate sense of global conservation. It is an intriguing idea, one that’s all the more effective since it means humanity and civilization are secondary to, once again, letting the monsters fight.
Kong: Skull Island opens Friday in theaters everywhere.