You can only expect so much from a movie with giant monsters. Don’t get me wrong, I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching furious behemoths (usually dudes in big, rubber suits stepping on models) do battle.
But these pleasures still are usually of the guilty, B-movie variety and expectations should be altered accordingly.
That said, Legendary Pictures found a surprising amount of critical and box-office success with their 2014 Godzilla reboot and now they’re out to enshrine an iconic giant monster franchise with “Kong: Skull Island.”
This time, they’ve actually managed to elevate the quality quotient by throwing an all-star cast and an effective man vs. nature plotline into the mix. Oh, and a giant ape wailing on huge lizard creatures. Can’t forget that.
When King Kong was first introduced to audiences in the 1930s, his prehistoric homeland was almost as much of a draw as his trip up the Empire State Building.
“Kong: Skull Island” smartly keeps the action on this speck of land that time forgot and gives us a batch of human characters almost as intriguing as the big, hairy guy.
Set at the end of the Vietnam War, crackpot professor Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his assistant (Corey Hawkins), manage to tag along on a government mapping expedition of Skull Island, an unexplored dot in the Pacific Ocean that is ominously always surrounded by a vicious storm system.
Randa brings along mercenary tracker and all-around hero James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and, to document it all, he enlists war photographer Mason Weaver (Academy Award winner Brie Larson).
Leading the way for the military is helicopter squadron Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who goes full Captain Ahab when Kong starts swatting his helicopters out of the sky, effectively stranding everyone on the island full of all manner of giant, deadly creatures.
“Kong: Skull Island” stands out for the acting headliners, sure, but also for the smaller parts like Packard’s men, played by the likes of Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Toby Kebbell (who also did the motion-capture work for Kong), who are more than just dudes with guns waiting around to get eaten, but fully-developed characters you find yourself actually caring about when they finally do get eaten.
Last, making a well-timed appearance as comic relief and the movie’s emotional fulcrum is John C. Reilly as a WWII pilot who has spent 30 years stranded on the island.
Now sure, we’ve seen King Kong and Skull Island before and you know the special effects are bound to deliver, but this mix of humor, casting, and humanity elevates this movie to rare heights for the genre and even above Peter Jackson’s lumbering, prestige 2005 remake.
Now, this is all leading us down a path to even more giant monsters in 2018’s “Godzilla 2” and 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” where other iconic creatures like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are likely to rear their ugly heads.
There’s absolutely no guarantee these movies will be any good, so we should probably just sit back and enjoy the rare and beautiful high-quality giant monster movies while we have them.
“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for brief strong language.