Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’

Kong Skull Island
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A reboot set entirely on the great ape's jungle island proves to be a better creature feature than either of the previous remakes.

Two years ago, “Jurassic World” came out and made a staggering $652 million at the domestic box office, even though it was a messy and unimaginative piece of thunder-lizard junk: a movie so impersonal it felt genetically engineered. It was a depressing reminder of what blockbuster movie culture can get away with if the monsters are big enough and the franchise strikes enough reptile-brained chords of recognition. On that scale, “Kong: Skull Island” would seem to have a lot going for it commercially, even if it was just another shoddy and cynical reboot of a reboot — which is what a lot of people are probably expecting it to be.

The surprise is that “Skull Island” isn’t just 10 times as good as “Jurassic World”; it’s a rousing and smartly crafted primordial-beastie spectacular. The entire film takes place on Kong’s jungle island home (he doesn’t scale any skyscrapers — in New York or Dubai), and you could say that it’s more action-based and less ambitious than either of the “King Kong” remakes: the snarky, overblown, justly reviled 1976 knockoff or Peter Jackson’s good but still not good enough 2005 retread.

Yet in its jungle-stranded B-movie way, “Kong: Skull Island” may come closer in spirit to the wide-eyed amazement of the original than either of those remakes. That’s because it’s more casually willing to be its own thing. The 1933 version of “King Kong” is still definitive — the most awe-inspiring and emotionally transporting giant-monster movie ever made. Part of the problem with both remakes is that they were straining to live up to what could never be equaled. “Skull Island” is more modest, but by staying on Skull Island and updating the place, it takes you somewhere you haven’t been. The movie updates Kong, too — he’s a true savage and nobody’s sweetheart, and though he’s been brought to life by motion capture, it takes a while before his outsize “humanity” kicks in. But when it does, it feels earned, and you’re grateful to the movie for not milking it.

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Kong: Skull Island

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“Skull Island” is set in 1973, just as Watergate is heating up and the Vietnam War is winding down, and that means that John Goodman, as an irascible Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist named Bill Randa, gets to step out of a cab near Capitol Hill and say, “Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” The line comes off as an overly Trumped-up nudge in the ribs, but the period setting, which seems arbitrary at first, actually works for the film in a topical way.

Randa, with his nose for bizarre events that are covered up by the establishment, has gotten wind of rumblings about something hidden away on an uncharted South Pacific island. He convinces a senator (Richard Jenkins) to bankroll a field mission there, an exploration on which he’ll be backed by a pair of troubleshooters: Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a U.S. military commander who is smarting from the humiliation of America in Vietnam, and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a renegade British mercenary tracker. Coming along to document the proceedings is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a free-spirited “antiwar photographer.”

The crew approaches Skull Island, an archipelago of giant jutting mossy rocks, in a handful of choppers, which get tipped and tossed by an electrical storm. But they really find out what it’s like to be batted around when they’re smacked, out of nowhere, by a gorilla hand the size of a tank. They respond by bombing the island (to the well-chosen strains of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”), goosed along by Jackson’s gung-ho officer, who rasps, “Kill this son-of-a-bitch!” It’s a shock to hear anyone refer to Kong that way, and if this were 1973, the antiwar commentary would be clear as day. In 2017, though, it feels less didactic and more prescient. Jackson’s seething, vengeful, kill-or-be-killed ethos is the real enemy in “Skull Island” — the film faces his squinty glare off against Kong’s — and given our post-Vietnam track record in Iraq, and whatever military master plans are now being drawn up in the White House, it’s galvanizing to see an action movie full of guns and hardware that comes down on the side of not blowing s—- up.

A “King Kong” movie should, first and foremost, be a fairy tale of primeval wonder, and this one is. The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, takes much of his inspiration from the original Skull Island sequence of the 1933 “King Kong,” with its storybook dinosaurs, and you may also detect the influence of “The Mysterious Island,” the 1961 Ray Harryhausen classic that featured an eye-popping array of giant creatures. In “Skull Island,” the island is brimming with oversize species, from a sad-eyed water buffalo to a giant stick-bug to swarms of blue-blooded pterodactyls to a towering spider that hovers over a forest to the octopus whose tentacles Kong battles and makes a snack of. The creatures keep the rather elemental story popping; we never know what we’re going to see next.

The other thing that keeps the movie popping is John C. Reilly, who shows up as Hank Marlow, a World War II soldier who’s been stranded on the island since 1944. He’s been living with the native tribe there (they suggest Buddhist monks with faces painted like designer chocolates), and he’s a bit of a Rip Van Winkle in his bomber jacket and long curly gray beard, but if that makes the character sound like a deadly cliché, rest assured that Reilly’s performance is terrifically dry and sly. He plays this man who should have lost his mind long ago as a stubborn paragon of flaked-out common sense. It’s Hank who can help guide the crew to the north side of the island, where they’ve got just two days to rendezvous with a rescue team. But to do that, they’ll have to fight off the worst creatures of all: the gnashing corrosive exoskeletal thingies, all speed and tongue — think raptors, but uglier and meaner.

In many ways, “Kong: Skull Island” is a “Jurassic Park” movie — and if viewed that way, it’s the best since the first. The characters may be a touch minimal, but that doesn’t mean they’re boring; the actors fill them in. Hiddleston, while top-billed, never takes over the movie, but he’s crisp and hearty (though that accent of his is too posh). Goodman has become a more forceful presence by playing down his goofy humor, Jackson scores as a humanized bad guy, and Brie Larson takes a generic role and infuses it with vibrance. She’s the one actor on hand who really looks like she’s from the ’70s (she has that desert-flower earthiness), and the movie offers its coolest updating of the “Kong” mystique by connecting her to the big guy in a way that winks at the girl-in-the-ape-fist “romance” of old, minus the coercion (or the tearing off of dress tops). The connection between Mason and Kong seems all the more touching for being so understated. Kong emerges as just the hero we want him to be: noble but raging — a primate god who will rear up and destroy, but only when threatened.

As a Marvel-style sequence at the end of the closing credits makes clear, “Skull Island” has been planned, in league with the powerful and evocative 2014 “Godzilla,” as the second film in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, the elaborately linked series of creature-feature reboots from Warner Bros. (The teaser hints at a new “Mothra” and “Ghidorah.”) That might be enough to bring out the anti-franchise cynic in you. But if the upcoming films prove to be as winning as this one, then audiences eager to get their old giant movie monster on should have nothing to fear.

WATCH: Tom Hiddleston & Aaron Paul talk Social Media

Film Review: 'Kong: Skull Island'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, March 1, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Legendary Pictures, Tencent Pictures production. Producers: Thomas Tull, Mary Parent, Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia. Executive producers: Eric McLeod, Edward Cheng.

Crew

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly. Camera (color, widescreen): Larry Fong. Editor: Richard Pearson.

With

Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell.

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  1. i s says:

    1. In the begining we can see the green lines of green screen in the head of John Goodman in a Saigon interior scene. (?)

    2. Kong is “machine gunned” with a machine gun than actually can perforate steel. Kong doesn’t die.

    3. Kong’s eyes are in the uncanny valley. It’s terrible CGI. Peter Jackson’s Kong was much better done. In some scenes, like when Kong eats an octopus, kong’s eyes are so wrong, that looked like a robot’s eyes.

    4. Some very blatant continuity goofs with the sun lighting in the scene when Kong is destroying the helicopters.

    5. Goodman is a great actor. In this movie his eyes are like a drug addict.

    6. No ending.

    7. Peter Jackson’s King kong wasn’t a perfect movie, but it was a much better movie than Kong Skull Island.

    8. Jurassic World is a better movie than
    Skull Island in any way, despite the river scene, Jurassic World was a good movie. That’s the truth. By the way, Jurassic World had ending.

    Skull island: 4 / 10

  2. i s says:

    Well, chinese women are beautiful and intelligent. Kong is a bad movie: Nending, some really bad CG (kong) and very well done CG helicopters shots. Skull Island sucks
    Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a much better movie. This kong sucks, sorry.

    Kong: Skull Island 4 / 10

  3. zimplant2014 says:

    Can we talk about how the minute I see the Chinese lettering denoting that it’s a Chinese produced film I know that there is going to be the obligatory blandly beautiful Chinese girl delivering her terrible wooden lines? Seriously, the part is so token and the girl must be related to someone who is helping with her “acting” career.

  4. Todd says:

    They drop the bombs on the island and THEN Kong knocks the choppers out of the sky. He doesn’t attack them “out of nowhere,” he’s upset with the explosives. Did you actually watch the movie before writing this?

  5. JASON ROSS says:

    Stopped reading the review as soon as it stared revealing plot points, until then it was a pleasing one!!!! I’m only dipping my toes back into Variety reviews since that utter tossbag spoilered the ending of Logan AFTER having given away some major plot points. It’s weakest most simplistic form of film reviewing. Basically a summary, not a critique. Please do better Variety reviewers!

    • RS says:

      OH MY GAWD!! A movie review that actually mentioned what the movie is ABOUT?!?! OH MY GAWD!! That never happens. EVER! I mean, it’s totally possible to review a movie without ever once mentioning any of it’s plot points whatsoever! OH MY GAWD! How DARE you Variety. How DAAARRREE you! Me and Jason Ross are going to take our business to reviewers who don’t say anything whatsoever about a movie’s plot. Not sure where those reviewers are since THEY DON’T REALLY EXIST, but once Jason finds them, I’m sure he’ll come back here and let us know.

  6. Justin B says:

    This is perhaps the best review of the movie I’ve read thus yet. The YT reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about, really. Great job on ACCURATELY reviewing the film.

    • RS says:

      YouTube reviewers are not real reviewers, nor do any of them have the depth of experience that pro reviewers like those featured in Variety’s pages actually have. YT reviewers are mostly millennials who fancy themselves as seasoned taste-makers even though they haven’t seen one-one-hundredth of the movies seen by professional writers who are actually PAID to do this for a living, and have been since before most YT “reviewers” were born. I’m not saying you have to agree with the pros 100% — I certainly don’t — but the odds of a better-written, more thoughtfully-researched review are generally guaranteed whereas the foaming fanboys and fangirls on YT are mostly just excruciating to listen to (or read).

  7. Susie says:

    That is the most entertaining and insightful movie review I have ever read. Needless to say – I loved it!!!

  8. me says:

    Has their ever been a “critic” worse at their job than Gleiberman?

  9. bobbysue says:

    no charima with Hiddleston
    lost it with his snafu with the odious Swift

  10. Yuk says:

    Brie Larson will make this movie lose a lot of money.

  11. orionsaint says:

    Stay after the credits!

  12. stevenkovacs says:

    But did you like it?🙊

  13. fatalreview says:

    Ok dissing the version Jack Black and Naomi Watts were in is seriously lame-that was a great play on Hollyweird in that era-it was a masterpiece-the vaudeville angle-the saddest girl in the world who just wants to make people happy-the destiny and fate twined with fame and greed-come on-the giant f-ing bugs? Adrienne Brody? that movie is still sizzling–this might go for a more “dirty realism” angle but that does not diminish the cleverness of the 2005 Kong

  14. I almost was not going to see it, now I may after reading this review. Now I hope it stands up to your review!

    • bobbysue says:

      have never ever in no way understood he appeal of ms
      watts.

    • Chris Christie's Belt says:

      That movie sucked. Jack Black running in front of a green screen as dozens of dinosaurs run over him was the stupidest scene ever.

      • i s says:

        Perhaps you prefer to see a very visible green line of the green screen in the head of John Goodman in the scene of Saigon…

        Kong:Skull Island: 4/10
        Rotten Tomatoes: 0/10

      • RS says:

        You’re really that shallow that one scene — ONE SCENE — in a movie ruins it for you? Pathetic.

  15. KRCompanion says:

    This second rate reboot attempt won’t come anywhere near the dominate sales of Jurassic World. Kong: Reboot Island will open strong and fizzle fast, bank on it.

  16. Sadie says:

    I think it’ll be great. I already have my early ticket. But I wish people mainly critics would stop comparing monster films coming out afterwards to jurassic world. If people are going in to Kong expecting it to JW you’ll be disappointed.

  17. George Valentin says:

    I hope this movie is a box office bonanza.

  18. OR you could review a film WITHOUT being political. But that would be way too much to ask from a leftist Hollywood mouthpiece, wouldn’t it?

    • Patrick Juvet says:

      Mentioning a political joke that the movies itself makes is a far cry from being political in writing a review.

      • AlienFanatic nailed it……..veiled political commentary is pathetic, unwarranted and certainly not asked for. The fact that Patrick thought the “movie itself” made that joke rather than Gleiberman is probably a good indication that he never read the review.

      • To be fair, Patrick, I think he was referring to this snippet: ” and whatever military master plans are now being drawn up in the White House, it’s galvanizing to see an action movie full of guns and hardware that comes down on the side of not blowing s—- up.”

        After Mr. Gliebbermann (sp) took pains to sneer at the little gibe from Goodman’s character, it was disappointing to see him offer his own political point of view. Hey, it’s his column but you can’t deride the inclusion of a modern political reference in a movie while simultaneously making one of your own without enduring accusations of hypocrisy.

        I generally like Variety’s reviews, but I’m so very tired of political seepage in every possible forum these days.

  19. david stone says:

    As a movie theatre owner….what a relief,,,,,,a good KONG movie finally….YES !

  20. Tom says:

    I agree with Matt. But the CGI work in NYC was good.

  21. Lucky says:

    Great review, so many top reviewers just run down the story points and explain what happens beat by beat, you guys don’t and I appreciate it :)

  22. Matt says:

    Stating that Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake was a good movie negates the rest of the review. Should probably force the reviewer to sit through it again.

    • i s says:

      Stating that Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake wasn’t a good movie negates the rest of the comment. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but it was a better movie than Kong: Skull Island. In any way. Perhaps some internet comments are little revenges against some directors….

      By the way, the eyes of Kong, in some scenes, are worse than Peter Jackson’s King kong’s eyes. In addition, I saw some very visible continuity goofs with the sun lighting when Kong brings down the helicopters.

      Kong: Skull Island: 4 / 10
      Rotten tomatoes/The Guardian/Empire (in this review): 0 / 10

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