Kong: Skull Island is so much better than it could have been

>>> The giant ape is back as the hero of a very weird monster movie -- and surrounds him with interesting actors

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Jordan Vogt-Roberts). 120 minutes. Opens Friday (March 10). Rating NNNN See listing.

You may already have heard this, but just in case you haven’t, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island is the second film in an interconnected cinematic universe which Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment kicked off in 2014 with Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla.

Given that Warner is still struggling to pull its ongoing DC Comics project together, the news of another cinematic universe might make you wince. But it turns out that Warner is a lot better with giant monsters than it is with capes. Or maybe it’s Legendary that’s got the magic. Either way, Kong: Skull Island is so much better than it could have been.

Skull Island is a brand new King Kong story, jumbling up elements of all previous Kong pictures – the 1933 original, the 1976 remake and Peter Jackson’s rhapsodic 2005 reimagination – and reconfiguring the overall property to fit into the Godzilla universe.

It’s also really, really weird.

Set in 1973, days after the end of the Vietnam War, Skull Island follows a party of scientists and soldiers (and one wily female photojournalist) on a geological survey to an uncharted island in the South Pacific – an island “where myth and science meet”, which of course means rampaging monsters, mutant insects and one really big ape. (A lot bigger than any previous incarnations, since he’s eventually going to share the screen with Toho’s most famous export.)

Things almost immediately go wrong, leaving the survivors – among them newly minted A-listers Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, character vets John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson, up-and-comers Thomas Mann, Shea Wigham and Toby Kebbell, relative unknowns Eugene Cordero, Tian Jing and Marc Evan Jackson and Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell – scrambling to stay alive in a savage, treacherous landscape. And that’s before John C. Reilly turns up.

In his first major studio effort, Vogt-Roberts (The Kings Of Summer) makes some delightfully idiosyncratic choices, like shooting impressionistic action sequences with gritty, era-appropriate cinematography and referencing Apocalypse Now almost as much as the original King Kong.

The result is a movie that feels refreshingly unpredictable even as it works within the standard franchise parameters – much like Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla, to which it’s tied only glancingly, it finds its own tone and never wavers.

Will it make sense if you haven’t seen Godzilla? Sure. It’s a pretty basic survival story, with characters that are well-defined (if not especially well-rounded), a host of engaging performances and some very clever battle sequences. I’m really thankful for whoever it was – probably co-writer Max Borenstein? – that figured out monster movies are a lot more interesting when the monsters are allowed to think and fight strategically, rather than just lash out in blind reaction to whatever’s happening around them. It imbues them with character and makes every effects scene that much more interesting.

And yes, there’s a thing after the credits. But it’s clever, too.

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