The original King Kong was was released almost a century ago now, in 1933. Since then, almost everything about cinema has been improved: the colour, the sound, the resolution, and especially the special effects. So why haven't monster movies gotten commensurately better?
Kong: Skull Island doesn't improve upon the original as a whole, but it is a long overdue return to form, and proof that there is still room to make a solid, old-fashioned monster movie in the modern age.
All the trappings of the original are there: it's still a voyage by boat to an uncharted island, with a crew of explorers and troops that don't know what they are getting into, but the galvanizing element is not commerce this time, but science, with a side of vengeance.
The timeline has moved up 4 decades, to 1973, at the end of the Vietnam war. John Goodman, as the head of an organization called Monarch, gets the funding to make one final expedition to a place called Skull Island, and even wrangles a military escort. Samuel Jackson gets the call as the colonel in charge of an assault helicopter squadron who is not yet ready for peacetime. Tom Hiddleston is the requisite great white hunter, in this case, an ex-SAS trooper who is an unmatched tracker. Brie Larson rounds out the principals as a peace-loving war photographer, and, yes, as a result, you have Nick Fury, Loki, and Captain Marvel all in the same movie.
A handful of scientists and military pilots from central casting finishes the party, and unlike Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, they waste very little time getting to the titular location. Best of all, they are not there long before Kong makes his presence known, and the landscape is littered with scattered bodies and wrecked helicopters shortly thereafter.
Kong has more than doubled in size since his last iteration, growing from 25 to 50 feet tall. This not only makes him even more threatening to the humans onscreen, but sets him up nicely for a showdown with Godzilla in 2020. He is tremendously well animated, but I do miss the more simian behaviours captured by Andy Serkis last time around. This Kong is far more bipedal, and perhaps not quite as expressive, but makes up for it with an imaginative fighting style which is clear, kinetic and absolutely savage.
Most importantly though, Kong is not the only monster on the island, which is positively teeming with creepy creatures in a variety of scales. John C. Reilly, as a pilot who crashed there in WWII, provides quite a bit of exposition as to the current state of affairs on Skull Island, and where most previous Kong movies have made the eponymous ape sympathetic to some degree, this film is content to present him as the least horrifying of a number of other monstrosities, and an unlikely defender.
So what makes a good monster movie?
Good monster designs - not just Kong, but a number of other nameless abominations; scary looking and backed with great animation.
A real sense of peril - the body count starts shortly after the expedition gets to the island, and does not let up.
Imaginative attacks - there were a couple of standouts here, and the movie plays against familiar tropes a couple of times.
Plot unpowered by stupidity - while there is evidence of monomania and revenge in a couple of key players, but everyone acts with purpose, and in a consistent manner. Some bad decisions at times, sure, but no stupid people to push the story forward or 'shake things up'.
Survival is the focus - while there is a detectable chemistry between Hiddleston and Larson, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wisely leaves that field fallow while everyone is busy trying not to be killed.
And maybe a jump scare or two, as evidenced by the death grip Fenya kept on the hands of both her mother and her sister while viewing it Friday night.
Kong: Skull Island takes a lot of its visual design from Vietnam war movies like Apocalypse Now, as evidenced by this IMAX poster, and they don't miss a step. From the twin Hueys and Sea Stallion helicopters, to the M-14 carried by Jackson, and the camera equipment carried by Goodman and Larson, everything evokes the period extremely well. And maybe it's been too long, but viewing those squadrons of slicks in the air from above, rotors turning in super slow motion, and popped out from the background by very effective use of 3D, was real treat in and of itself.
Look folks, there are no Oscar monologues to be had in this movie, but everyone in it is committed, and the end result is an effective amusement park ride that bodes very well for the future. That fact that this future involves yet another shared cinematic universe will undoubtedly make some roll their eyes, but if they approach it the same way, I look forward to seeing King Ghidorah, Rhodan and Mothra return to the big screen once more.
If I could see them at a drive-in theatre, that would make things just about perfect.