What’s the big surprise of Kong: Skull Island? No, it’s not a secret sequel to Peter Jackson’s 2005 film King Kong; the two movies are not connected in any way. And no, in fact, this Kong is not a sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, either, though the two are both part of a shared universe that’s being called the MonsterVerse.
No, the big surprise — not a spoiler! — is that Kong: Skull Island is actually a prequel to Godzilla. After a brief introductory sequence set in 1944, the action jumps to 1973 and stays there. Which lends a delicious retro analog vibe to the goings-on. A good reason to set this tale in 1973: It allows for mysterious Skull Island, hidden by a perpetual storm, to have been recently discovered in the South Pacific by the first Earth-mapping satellites. Scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) finally gets permission to take his team on a mission to the island; he has a pretty good idea what’s there via his top-secret government project, Monarch (referenced in Godzilla), which is documenting the existence of “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms.” (It’s like an X-Files for monsters.) So off they go accompanied by “tracker” James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and an escort of U.S. military who are about to be demobilized from Vietnam. Once on the island, they meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who was shot down over the island in 1944 (that’s the opening sequence) and has been stuck there since.
Boiled down to its bonkers essence, Skull Island is a Vietnam War movie with monsters. (Kong is far from the only one.) It’s Ape-ocalypse Now, with a war-addicted, possibly insane Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is quite upset about the whole not winning in Vietnam thing, going full Ahab and fixating on Kong as a “war” he can win. (He might be underestimating the capabilities of his squad.) So while Skull Island has ironic fun with a running motif about how war can make a man see enemies everywhere — including in a giant ape that was just minding his own business until you started dropping bombs on him — there’s also a man-versus-nature thing running alongside it: Mess with nature, and nature will mess right back, ferociously. It’s like Jurassic Park, with a lot less wonder and a helluva lot more horror. Oh, the gruesome, intense ickiness here! This movie is really pushing the boundaries of a PG-13 rating ... or maybe it only feels that way when you’re watching in 3D IMAX and it feels like the jungle bug slime and the gore and the monster vomit is all over you. This is a rare instance of 3D being put to actual use onscreen rather than just serving as an excuse to hike ticket prices: There is real depth in the jungle, real dizziness to be found looking down from a high cliff. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature film is the unpleasantly snide ultra-low-budget coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer, has acquitted himself well with his first massive FX movie.
All the horror and the black comedy and the monster battles and the homages to a slew of other films — it all works, even crammed in like this, thanks in large part to the fine line the terrific cast walks between treating it with just enough taking-it-seriously under the lashings of nonsense. Reilly steals the show as his lost-in-time pilot, but Hiddleston is a close second, plausibly rougher and tougher than we’ve seen him before in his first true action role. Larson’s role could be meatier, but she is not a damsel in distress, and she is not there for Kong to inexplicably fall in love with. (In fact, the most offensive Kong tropes have been excised, though they are alluded to.) One or two groans are a necessary response to an obvious choice or two on the soundtrack of mostly awesome ’70s rock tunes, but that’s not much to complain about when so much could have gone badly wrong here. I would have said, after Peter Jackson’s Kong, that he didn’t need another reboot. But I’m glad we got this one.